Thursday 21 June 2018

Interview: Jeff Dawson

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It's my stop on the blog tour for No Ordinary Killing by Jeff Dawson and I'm super excited to be sharing an exclusive interview! Keep on reading to discover more.

Firstly, please could you introduce yourself?
Hi there, I’m a writer – thirty odd years’ experience as a journalist. I was, for many years, the main feature writer/interviewer for the Culture section of The Sunday Times (I still write for them occasionally). I existed, in a previous incarnation, as the US Editor of the film magazine, Empire. I’ve written for everybody over the years – most of the broadsheets (quite a lot for The Guardian at one point), a few of the tabloids and magazines like Elle, Entertainment Weekly, Marie Claire, The Radio Times, Word magazine. I’ve also had brief forays into writing for film and TV.

I’ve penned three non-fiction books - Tarantino (Applause Books, 1995); Back Home: England And The 1970 World Cup (Orion, 2001), which The Times called "Truly outstanding"; and Dead Reckoning: The Dunedin Star Disaster (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2005), nominated for the Mountbatten Maritime Prize. No Ordinary Killing, the first of the Ingo Finch historical crime series, is my first novel. It’s already been number one in Amazon Kindle Historical Thrillers, which is very nice!
How did you first become interested in writing?
I’d always enjoyed writing stories from the earliest days and I loved, as a kid, reading things like Norman Hunter’s Professor Branestawm books and Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, alongside a heavy diet of comics! A huge influence as a teenager was the New Musical Express (NME) which, in the late Seventies, played host to some quite radical punk-inflected journalism and made me realise how writing could have a cultural impact.

I suppose I got the bug with an intent to perhaps do it professionally when I was at university (the then University College of Wales, Aberystwyth). The minute I copped hold of the university magazine, Courier – this outrageous pamphlet, part NME, part Private Eye, part Pravda – I just had to be involved. By the third year, I was its editor. I never did a media degree of any sort. Back then you either went to postgrad journalism college and served your apprenticeship on a local thunderer or chanced your arm with Fleet Street. I chose the latter course.
Tell me about No Ordinary Killing. 
No Ordinary Killing is a historical crime thriller set in the final days of 1899 and the turn on the new century. It takes place in South Africa during Britain's last great, and almost completely forgotten, colonial conflict, the Boer War, in which half a million men from Britain and the Empire poured into this far-flung, southern outpost. The book is not about the Boer War but is a murder mystery set against its backdrop. Away from the military action, Cape Town here is a heaving, exotic port, with thousands of soldiers passing through, either on their way up to the Front, or on leave from it, and the local police hard-pushed to cope. Behind the genteel veneer, it is a city of bars, bordellos, conmen and a crime wave, with a lid clanging on a simmering pot of ethnic tension.

My story gets going when a British Army officer is found dead one night, killed under seemingly strange circumstances, his body dumped on the veranda of his guesthouse. Which is where Captain Ingo Finch comes into the picture. A doctor with the newly formed Royal Army Medical Corps - with the army, but not of the army - he is summoned to sign off on a post-mortem, the officer’s death falling between the jurisdictions of the over-burdened Cape Constabulary and the Military Foot Police. The identity of the victim and the swift, too-tidy resolution to the case, prompts Finch to do a bit of amateur sleuthing. Pretty soon our unwitting hero is caught in a web of deadly intrigue and espionage as the machinations of military intelligence click into gear around him.

Along with an Australian nurse, Annie Jones, and an escaped diamond miner, Mbutu, Finch finds he has stumbled on a terrifying secret, one that will shake the Empire to its core...
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What drew you to this era of history?
A few years ago, in St Albans, I lived on a street called Ladysmith Road. It joined another one called Kimberley, both thoroughfares of solid, red-brick terracing. Show me any British suburb, built around 1900, and I will give you roads called Ladysmith and Kimberley, Mafeking too — named after towns besieged, then jubilantly relieved, during the Boer War of 1899-1902.

There’s evidence enough that the Boer War was deeply etched into late-Victorian/early-Edwardian society. The reminders live on - in those steep “Kop” ends at football grounds; in the good old Boy Scouts, set up by a general (Baden-Powell) to improve army recruiting. At the war’s peak, as I say, a staggering half a million men – half a million – had flooded into South Africa from around the Empire, the then-biggest military expedition in history. It was the Vietnam War of its day, in which the might of the world’s pre-eminent Superpower was brought to bear upon a vastly outnumbered, supposedly ragtag foe – in this case, a bunch of upstart, Dutch-descended settlers. And yet, for all its enormity, it has pretty much disappeared from the history books.

There are good reasons. Firstly, it was an embarrassment, one internationally condemned – a lop-sided affair in which a vaunted brief victory ended up taking a brutal two-and-a-half years, with thousands of Boer women and children perishing in that brand new construct, the “concentration camp”. Secondly, just twelve years later, came the Great War, a conflict so cataclysmic, and so much closer to home, that this colonial rumble in a far-flung corner of the British Empire became irrelevant.

That should not mask its enormity. News of the relief of Mafeking prompted scenes of national celebration unmatched till VE Day. It was also the first mass media war, with embedded reporters (like Winston Churchill) filing dispatches daily. As a by-product, it was also the first conflict in which you had something amounting to an anti-war movement. And significantly, it was a proxy war, the British and Germans testing out their kit – a dress rehearsal for the Armageddon to come.
Why did you decide to write crime fiction? 
Good question. I have no idea really, other than I enjoy reading it. I think one of the great things about crime fiction is that you’re not only exercising the literary muscle but also getting to solve a puzzle at the same time – three-hundred-page sudoku! One thing I had learned through being a journalist, continued through my non-fiction work, and honed with screenwriting in particular, is the technique of paying out information. It’s an enjoyable challenge – setting up a chapter and then closing it by posing a question, making you want to turn the page and give yourself another fifteen minutes with the Horlicks before putting the light out! 
The book is set in South Africa – have you ever travelled there?
Yes, but not extensively. I had been there a few times in researching my last book, Dead Reckoning, about a shipwreck that occurred off the coast of Namibia in 1942 and found it a very intriguing country. I hope I’ve been there enough to give a flavour!
How did you get inspiration?
Gosh, well... as I say, I had been to South Africa a few times and there was the name of the street I was living on. In South Africa, unlike here, it is immediately apparent that the Boer War was a huge event that shapes society still. It’s a bit like being in the American South today when they talk about “the war”, meaning the Civil War (a conflict with which the Boer War shares many similarities). It’s still living and breathing. Anyway, it got the cogs whirring.

I love stories not necessarily about war, but ones using its heightened reality as a backdrop – Hemingway's A Farewell To Arms is one of my favourites. I also love crime/spy thrillers, especially stories where the protagonist is an unwitting pawn in a bigger game, trying to figure out the rules on the hoof – I'm thinking of things like Hitchcock’s film version of The 39 Steps and North By Northwest. All these things just sort of came together in an almighty collision. By the way, Hitchcock (with his screenwriter Ernest Lehman) has been as much an influence on me as any author.
What’s your writing process?
People always ask me how long it took to write something. My standard response is that the writing bit didn’t take long, it was the thinking beforehand that took forever. So it’s not so much about the writing process but the thinking process. That comes from staring for hours and hours at my laptop screen, going off to have a cup of tea (Earl Grey brewed 3mins minimum, a splash of milk), a quick noodle on the guitar, or doing some exercise. I was a very keen runner until I did my knee in. Running was always good thinking time. Hopefully, it will be again. A very learned fellow once told me that you can't write a book until you have the book inside you. Someone else, an esteemed writer, said something about an author being pregnant with an idea – all these terrible female analogies drawn by male authors! So anyway, whatever it takes to get yourself mentally pregnant.

I once met the crime writer Jeffery Deaver (we signed each other’s books “Jeff D”). He told me that he plots everything out scientifically, his walls covered with notes and timeline charts like a police incident room. He actually referred to himself as a “technician”. I wouldn’t go that far, but with a plot-driven novel, you definitely have to have produced a comprehensive plan, a breakdown of what you want to say and achieve in each chapter before you get into the nitty-gritty.

As for the actual physical process, I used to sit at a desk in my office at home but I find these days, and as a tall person, conventional chairs play havoc with my back. I haven’t quite graduated to the Michael Morpurgo method of lying on the bed propped up by pillows, probably with handmaidens coming in to waft silver salvers of Turkish Delight, but the solid leather sofa downstairs with a firm cushion thrust behind the lower lumbar region is as good a place as any to write. I used to go to my local Starbucks a lot but it’s gone a bit downhill. Plus I hate it when they ask for your name (and no, I don’t want to cough up an extra 50p for your new house blend). Anyway, once you’ve got your template, the writing is really the end process.
What’s the hardest thing about writing? 
Knowing when to stop. You can go on perfecting forever. At some point, you have to say, “That’s as good as it’s going to get.” Sometimes you can over-correct things to the point where something just doesn’t make sense anymore. It’s that thing of being so close you can’t see the wood for the trees. Musicians will tell you that, when recording, Take Two is always the best. Why? Well, on Take One you were just warming up. And from Take Three onwards, you’re losing the spontaneity. You can sort of apply that to writing in a way. A good technique (which I’ve just employed on the next Finch book) is when you’ve finished, put it down for a month. No matter how much it may call out to you, go cold turkey on the damn thing, slam yourself in purdah. Then you can appraise it with a fresh set of eyes when you pick it up again. It’s like packing for a holiday. Shove what you need in a suitcase then go back and throw fifty per cent of it away. There’s a lot to be said for Faulkner’s “kill your darlings” thing. One of the things I learnt as a journalist is that every word, every sentence must count. You can’t have any deadwood. Same with a novel. If it doesn’t serve the plot, get rid of it. I cut No Ordinary Killing down by a third on its final draft. There was some beautiful stuff I sacrificed, but it was a wise decision. 
What do you love most about writing?
Someone once quoted something to me that I’d written in the newspaper without realising it was me. It was like that scene in When Harry Met Sally (if you know it). “Hey… I wrote that!” Quite a nice feeling. I spoke at book club recently where they had been discussing No Ordinary Killing. Now I have spoken about my books before but they had always been non-fiction, so in a sense works of extended journalism. It was quite surreal to have people discuss in depth characters and scenes that were the figment of my imagination… and so passionately!
Which authors inspire you?
Well, I love Hemingway, as I’ve already mentioned – those terse, muscular, economic prose. Alongside Farewell to Arms, For Whom the Bell Tolls is just a work of genius. Another tremendous war story. Not that Papa is beyond reproach. Measuring F. Scott Fitzgerald’s penis in A Moveable Feast? Hmmmm…

There are few authors whose name alone immediately conjures a whole sub-genre. I have had the good fortune to meet a number of authors as a journalist –Michael Morpurgo, James Ellroy (who would rather die than use an adverb), Jeffery Deaver, Sam Shepard, Jay McInerney, the late Elmore Leonard. But, amongst them, one stands out as a legend, the also late Michael Crichton. I met him in Washington DC in 1994 while promoting the film of his book Disclosure. He was in the middle of writing his Jurassic Park sequel, The Lost World. That freaked me out (in a good way). A blockbuster novel was not only right there inside his head but up there in his hotel room on his primitive brick laptop, hopefully backed up on some steam-driven “floppy disk” (Pet hate – the bit in a film where a novelist has their novel destroyed and it’s always the only copy!) Behind his eyes there were actual dinosaurs!

Crichton was a strange, detached bloke, and extremely tall, I remember, but considering all that he has created, including things like TV’s ER, and even Westworld, which has been re-jigged – wow! – what a brain. Just the sheer high concept of everything and the beautifully explained “science” behind his “fiction”. I’m re-reading Jurassic Park with my 10-year-old daughter. Not just a great story but highly educational to boot. We’ve just been discussing DNA.
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I suppose we’re talking here about authors in terms of their bodies of work rather than individual books or one-hit-wonders. In which case let me say I’m a huge fan of crime writer Michael Connelly. Just the seeming ease with which he transports you into Harry Bosch’s Los Angeles and how effortlessly he simplifies the judicial process and police procedure for each case he takes on. Whenever I’m amassing a stack of holiday reading, you can rest assured there’ll be a Michael Connelly or two in there. You know exactly what you’re going to get and be very satisfied with it. But I am biased. I used to live in LA, so it’s always like a little trip down memory lane.

Related to that, I suppose my real love is hard-boiled noir. I’m a sucker for Jim Thompson. The Grifters and The Getaway are just grimly fab. Of course, Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett – no need to even explain. But of all that crowd, the one I revere is James M. Cain. The Postman Always Rings Twice, Double Indemnity and, my favourite, Mildred Pierce – that’s a hell of a CV.

Of the modern authors, I love the sort of magical mysticism that Paul Auster manages to bring into seemingly everyday New York stories. Again, he’s an author I’ll buy on the strength of his name any time. Gosh, we need more Brits – Ian McEwan, Sebastian Faulks, William Boyd… and mustn’t forget Ian Fleming.

I have to say, as someone who has worked alongside the film business for many years, do not underrate screenwriting and screenplays as a readable form either. If you’ve never read a screenplay, grab any early Quentin Tarantino – Reservoir Dogs, True Romance, Pulp Fiction. You won’t put them down, I guarantee.
Do you have any tips for aspiring writers?
I don’t think anyone sets out to be a novelist. It’s not something your school careers officer will have a brochure on. Aside from the obvious things (spelling, grammar), if you, my friend, can write a story, of whatever length, and someone enjoys reading it, then you are a writer. And don’t be put off by some notion that it’s some exclusive highfalutin business where everybody’s read all the classics and twirls olives in their cocktails and has PhDs in the inner narrative of George Eliot.

I did an interview the other day where someone asked me about the transition in No Ordinary Killing from “crime fiction” to “thriller”. Don’t get me wrong, the chap was a delight and full of praise and has helped publicise the book and I’m very grateful, but, honestly, I had no idea! There are so many labels to be slapped on everything, everything shoved into a box. I ask you this, is Romeo & Juliet a Romance or a Tragedy? …And does anyone give a tinker’s cuss? One of my favourite books of all time is Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five. It’s about a POW’s experiences during the fire-bombing of Dresden – and it features time travel, aliens and a trip to a distant planet where he is exhibited in a zoo. Fantastic! I suspect if dear old Kurt were writing that today his agent would put their head in their hands. But, hey, a great book is a great book. So yeah, don’t be put off by all the jargon… or the snobbery. I don’t care what anyone says, The Da Vinci Code is a brilliantly constructed potboiler… and Thomas Pynchon is unreadable.

I was once in a car in Copenhagen with the maverick film director Lars Von Trier. In his pig-sty of a vehicle, he pulled out a talking book CD of Finnegans Wake and slammed it into the player. He had purchased it at great expense and wanted to ask me, as a native English speaker, whether there had been some mistake in the recording as to him it seemed utterly incomprehensible. No, I said, that just the way it is. To which he ejected it and threw it out of the window, with the exclamation, “James Joyce… You fuck.” To all aspiring writers, I say take that as your motto.

The good news is that in the digital era there are so many more outlets for creativity than there were in the not so distant past. There are 200,000 books published a year in the UK. Yours can easily be one of them. But as with anything, you only get good at something with practice. Just stick at it. Don’t limit your imagination. But bear this in mind too, told to me by the great Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright, Sam Shepard – “Nobody ever made any damned money as a writer.” (He’s dead, too. The police are going to be knocking on my door.)
What are you currently working on?
I’ve just finished the first draft of the next Finch story. It’s set two years after the Boer War and he’s back in England trying hard, but failing, to slip back into everyday small-town life. Again, it’s a bit like the Vietnam War in a way. These men returned from the war not necessarily to be treated as heroes. They have to find a way to deal with some bad things that were conducted in their name. I’m not suggesting they grow their hair and start dropping acid, but there’s definitely some dark nights of the soul and some drinking going on. But that’s just the set-up. Another mystery soon presents itself.
What are you reading at the moment?
People assume because I’m an author that I read lots. I love reading and there is no greater pleasure than losing oneself in a book. There is nothing finer than the prospect of going on holiday with a stack of paperbacks and Kindle downloads to be devoured (all Canelo, naturally). On holiday in the South of France each year (in a caravan, I hasten to add, not some plush villa), my wife, Clare, and I guzzle books almost as quickly as the red wine. On a daily basis at home, unfortunately, it’s a case of squeezing in chapters here and there. I’m actually re-reading something at the moment – Raymond Chandler’s The Long Goodbye. For me, it’s a forensic exercise in deconstructing his marvellous prose. Published in 1953, I love the contrast with The Big Sleep (1939). Marlowe’s still the same old gumshoe, chasing the same old tired cases but increasingly out of his time.
What’s your all-time favourite book?
Blimey. Well, of course, there are several, some of which I’ve already mentioned – Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms and For Whom the Bell Tolls; Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five. Books are like records in that they tend to be as reflective of what you were doing in life at that particular time as much as for what they say. I Greyhounded around America as a student reading Kerouac’s On the Road. Would that book mean the same to me if I read it now for the first time on a wet November night in St Albans? Probably not. But then…?

I know it’s not fashionable to say Nabokov’s Lolita these days, but that’s one hell of a provocative and brilliantly-written book, one that lived with me a very long time. Likewise, a cult-ish book that actually made me think about how we make choices in our everyday lives is Luke Reinhart’s The Dice Man. Because I go to Cornwall a lot, there’s an extra-special place in my heart for Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca.

I read as much non-fiction as fiction but we’ll park that for the moment (special mention, though, to Truman Capote’s crossover, In Cold Blood). There are just so many novels… And I’m sure after this I will think of loads more. Oh, Jay McInerney’s Bright Lights, Big City. And I’m sure I’m supposed to mention some of the classics.

On my shelf at home, I’m proud to say I have a signed copy of Norman Mailer’s The Naked and the Dead, in my opinion, the greatest war novel ever written (despite what I said about Hemingway) – and penned when he was just 25! And how about Joseph Heller’s Catch-22?

I suppose, and this may seem really studenty, but one book that absolutely gripped me and prompted endless late-night discussions with kindred spirits back in the day is John Fowles’ The Magus. I heard the recent BBC radio dramatisation and, I tell you what, it grabbed me all over again. There’s an interview that Woody Allen gave once. They asked if he had any regrets in life. His answer? “That they ever made a film of The Magus.” If you’ve read it (and seen it), you’ll understand.
What are your ambitions for your writing career?
This is like the bit when they interview Miss World contestants and they all wish for world peace. Well… I don’t know. Of course, I’d like for the Finch series to become well-known. Not for any ego trip on my part, but to be appreciated as an entertaining and (hopefully) well-written series of stories that brings people some small amount of pleasure. Other than that… yeah… world peace!
What are your interests outside of writing and reading?
Like anyone with a family, wife, kids and home account for nearly all one’s time! Otherwise, I am pretty active. I’m back to running a bit. I swim, cycle and am a recent convert to tennis (largely on account of my 12-year-old son, who plays at quite a high level and delights in thrashing me, though I did take him to a tiebreak the other day). I used to be a decent club runner until the knee injury.

Perhaps my biggest indulgence is that I play guitar in a covers band (it’s my middle-age equivalent of the “red sports car”). We started out as a bunch of dads putting together something for a school summer fayre but we turned out to be way better than we thought and have evolved into a pretty decent act, gigging here and there. I just stand to the side trying to be cool while the singer jumps all over the place. We’re playing at a music festival to 3,000 people this summer on a big Glasto-type stage – the sort of thing I should have been doing in my twenties, not my fifties. My wife, Clare, loves it though. She’s a pushover when I’m a “rock star”. Hey hey, rock and roll!
No Ordinary Killing is available to buy now. For more about Jeff, you can check out his website.

Will you be reading the book? What do you think? Let me know in the comments below!

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