Michael J Malone. A Writer With Many Sides.
I first came across Michael J Malone’s crime novel Blood Tears in the summer, because it came up in a promotion run by a local Nottingham publisher Five Leaves. It became one of those books you take on holiday and I spent most of my time trying to not miss my mouth while I read the book on my lap at the dining table, because I couldn’t wait to see what happened. Even though it was not for the faint-hearted.
I have since found out he is a prolific poet. One of his poems that is relevant to Blood Tears can be found at the bottom of the interview.
As if that weren’t enough, Michael has also just published a non-fiction book Carnegie’s Call, which examines the business success of several prominent Scots.
Seemed like a good idea at the time? Actually, it was kind of an accident. My first two (as yet unpublished) novels were both contemporary fiction and I didn’t think I had the plotting skills to write a crime novel.
Blood Tears started with a dream – a dream which became the prologue to the novel. When I woke up I scribbled down the image I was left with, determined I would write something using that as a jumping off point.
It was only when I started writing the second chapter that I realized – hey, I’m writing a crime novel.
This is your first crime book. So you must have experienced a steep learning curve, particularly as you say it was not something you would have initially thought of doing. What have you learned from writing it, in terms of working with a publisher and the editing and the publishing process?
Blood Tears was actually the third novel I wrote. The other two are stuck in a computer file somewhere. I see them as my ‘apprenticeship’ if you will, and writing them was a huge learning curve. What they gave me was the knowledge that I could go the distance – and a lesson in persistence. If you don’t get your bum on the seat and your fingers dancing over the keyboard, nothing is going to get done.
In terms of editing and working with a publisher – I learned that I make a lot of typos, and I’m terrible at spotting them. The BIG learn here was to recognize THAT passage, or THAT scene. The one you know doesn’t really work, but you say those fatal words, ‘och, it’ll do’. Well those are the passages that your editor will call you out on. So get it right first time. Ignore the wee voice that says, its fine, when you know it isn’t.
How much research did you do into police procedure and the psychology of how they live?
When I was a teenager, my best friend’s father was a policeman. Then a few of my school friends joined up. When I got married, my best man was a cop – so I had a lot of contact with police officers over the years, albeit in their downtime. That helped considerably. I kinda learned by osmosis. It also meant when I had questions to do with procedure I had a number of people at the other end of a phone. I also think that if you read enough of this kind of book that some of that ‘stuff’ will stick. It’s worth pointing out at that any errors in this are my own. (coughs!)
Point of view (POV) is something you’ve discussed before in the blog ‘Blame it on the Muse’, but I would like to discuss it up again from a slightly different angle. Your POVs were from the perpetrator of the crimes in the third person, past tense, the female detective in third person, present tense, and the main character in first person, recounting his part in the present tense. Would you go through the dynamics of this interesting juggling act and why you did it this way?
I started writing from the perspective of my cop, McBain first. Just by instinct it was first person/ present tense. Only when I was some way in did I assess the efficacy of this. His journey was internal for a good portion of the book; he was quite possibly not the most sympathetic character at the outset and taking this into account I considered that the POV I was using for him made his narration much more immediate and might overcome any reader reluctance – and should stay.
Then, realizing that while this was a strong approach for my main character, it did have shortcomings – anything essential to the plot that happens outside of his sight/ hearing would be ‘inadmissible’ if you like. So I introduced the young female cop. She appeared on the page as a perfect foil to McBain and she had the advantage of being able to be present at events that he couldn’t. But I felt that the same POV for her would be confusing so I moved to the more conventional third person – and as she was moving in the same time frame as McBain, present tense would work for her as well.
Regarding the perpetrator, first person was out for the same reason I mentioned above and third person, I felt, added a little bit of distance. To combat this I used a more lyrical voice for him and I enjoyed that poetic voice talking about some distinctly nasty acts.
Crime writing is a very well trodden path, and littered with clichés. Did you deliberately work at trying to keep the story you were telling fresh? For example your lead character certainly has his problems, but felt very different to the usual cop with angst.
Although I had read widely, I didn’t really read that much crime fiction until after I had written Blood Tears, so in this case ignorance was bliss. I knew enough to avoid the main clichés but there were other things that I didn’t know I wasn’t supposed to do. Like the various POVs and tenses. One publisher cited this as the reason they rejected my novel. In their opinion this was a device for literary fiction, not crime fiction.
My response to this was, ‘eh?’
The archetypal detective is there for a reason: the archetype works. We don’t, as a rule, want to read about well-adjusted individuals. That’s wonderful in real life, but in fiction can be pretty dull. Conflict is what we want to read about. And we want loads of it. What I enjoyed writing about McBain was the fact that most of this conflict was internal. That made him a fascinating character to write about.
I was also keen to get away from the hard-drinking loner – and went for a hard-eating loner. McBain likes his grub. And he has a brief flirtation with the booze, but decides it’s not for him.
There are many humorous moments, particularly regarding the lead character, interspersed with very serious action. Did you set out to do this? How difficult a balance was it to keep?
Humour is important to me. I love nothing more than a good laugh and it seems I can’t help myself when writing. My sense of humour will find a way out. I didn’t ‘try’ to be funny, I think if you try too hard it doesn’t work; I just let it run from the situations my characters found themselves in and allowed the banter to flow. And again, once the book was written I assessed how that had worked and realized that it was a good counterpoint to all the dark and nasty stuff.
You’re right, there is a balance to seek. You can’t slow the action down too much with some jokes or have a slice of banter at the wrong moment. Or maybe you can. It all has to work in the context of the narrative and there were times I had to rein myself in.
There is quite a bit of description of locality and you had to get the main character’s background in as it was relevant. How did you decide how much description to give the reader, as there is fine line between feeding the reader information they need to know and info dumping?
Instinct. I write completely by instinct – set it down and then assess in the read through to see if it adds to the narrative or slows it down. When I give creating writing workshops, I remind the writers present that we live in a highly visual age. The writer need only provide a little telling detail and the reader will do the rest of the work. Always remember not to spell it out – and give the reader some work to do. It helps that I find writing descriptions difficult, so I’m not going to overdo it.
The plot is very complicated. How did you choreograph everything?
I am SO chuffed you asked about this, because again, everything was done by instinct. I planned nothing – had no notes/ spreadsheets/ whiteboards etc. I was flying totally by the seat of my pants. This approach keeps me fresh as I write, but it means I can forget stuff and I have to scroll through hundreds of pages for a character’s name – which is annoying. So I should get better organized.
What I do, from time to time is your old-fashioned mind-map. When going in to a new scene I’ll have the character’s name at the centre and just let everything and anything come to me that might impact on the coming scene.
Another technique I use is retrospective plotting. If something occurs to me in the coming scene, but it is something that will come across too much as a surprise, I’ll go further back in the book and add a seed into the reader’s mind that allows the possibility of whatever I’ve decided is going to happen.
As for the ‘complicated plot’ I had no idea that it was really – remember I didn’t think I had the chops to write plot – I was surprised when one publisher rejected the book because there was ‘too much going on’. Basically, he was saying his readers were chumps.
Which reminded me of the quote from the film director, William Goldman – ‘nobody knows anything’. He was of course talking about the film industry, but it could well have been publishing.
You are also a poet. You’ve mentioned the lyrical aspect to the perpetrator’s voice. How much did your poetry writing influence the overall way you approached the writing of Blood Tears (Ray McBain’s dreams were full of imagery).
I think the hours put in writing poetry has helped with my word choice. I’ve trained my brain, if you like, to seek out more interesting language. It doesn’t always work mind you, but when it does, it feels great. The words burst into your mind like a gift from some god of language – with no effort at all. But you recognize that all the practice you put in while writing poetry has helped put you in that place where, when you are in the zone, the words flow. And some of them will be just lovely.
The trick is to know when to allow this sort of flow and when to be more straightforward. When I wanted to create atmosphere I deliberately sought that kind of mental flow, but when I was looking for tension and pace, I turned off that ‘feel’.
Below is one of Michael’s poems that sums up the atmosphere of Blood Tears.
Drinking Jesus’ Blood
Sister Mary tears me from my dream,
mouth pursed white like the lip of a drawstring bag.
Again, urine had seeped from my Judas bladder.
Pyjamas in deep, wet, cotton folds burn from belly to knee.
Sister Mary, a window-less room and a bath of ice water.
The drum in my ear shivers at the machine gun rattle of my teeth.
Naked, I hide my hairless sex behind bone-thin hands.
‘Get your hands away, you dirty little pervert.’
My mouth opens, my hands move from sin, then back.
Cold water bites flesh. Skin and muscle shrink to a tight sheath.
Her black sleeves rolled up, forearms white as a frosted soul.
She tries to find suds in iced carbolic. I bite on the questions:
will my teeth chip or break from clattering,
how much will the tooth fairy give me if they are in crumbs?
Rubbed with stiff towel till skin heats, blue to pink.
In the Sacristy with Jim Docherty, the other Altar Boy,
itch of shame replaces the nip of urine.
‘Wet The Bed,’ he chants.
‘Shut it, Big Nose,’ I bruise his arm – and don white.
‘Lads,’ says Father Kieran, tousles our brylcreemed heads
and leaves us with a chalice full of communion wine.
The vessel grows until it shrinks the room,
I lean forward to touch it.
Jim’s eyebrows bounce off his hairline, ‘Bet you wouldn’t.’
I grip the stem in answer to his hushed taunt.
Heart charging at my ribcage I moisten lips, and pour.
Teeth and tongue fur sour before I force open my throat.
A blazing bolus flares a trail to my stomach.
Jim, slack mouthed with fear and awe,
‘Oh-oh, that’s a sin. You’ve just drank Jesus’ blood.’
‘Aye, and it tastes like piss!’