David Mark. The Writer Who Came in From the Cold.
It was really easy to slip into the world of Dark Winter. David Mark is a writer who loads crisp sentences with a ton of information in a way that allows effortless absorption. In fact, if I was to level any criticism, it would be that I now have to wait for the next book, Original Skin, to continue my immersion in the world of Aector McAvoy. Or rather the world of McAvoy and his boss Trish Pharaoh. As David points out in the interview, this is the first book in the McAvoy series, but the interaction between the two of them is what really makes it for me and Pharaoh is as much a leading character as McAvoy.
Interviewing David was as much fun as reading the book. His answers reflect the vigour of its action and dialogue. For those of you who have not yet read the book, I’ll be very surprised if you haven’t bought it before you reach the end of the interview.
Your book is very interesting for a debut novel because you’ve managed to layer in so many different things that it’s clear they’ll be plenty for you to write about in subsequent books.
Well effectively it’s the first chapter of a much lengthier narrative arc and yes, there are things going on in book one that may not prove relevant until a few books down the line. It’s funny how, as a writer of fiction, you’re creating a thing of contrivance, but somehow you have to make things seem uncontrived. It really makes my skin crawl when I see a character put in just to move the plot forward, so hopefully everybody in Dark Winter earned their place. I always try not to make anything in the writing jar.
I do feel as if, particularly in American crime fiction, that somebody often crops up who doesn’t quite fit in with the narrative so far. They’ve either done the crime or they’re a red herring and it sort of reminds you that this is just a story and you lose the authentic feeling of the world you’re reading about. If I’ve got an idea for someone who might come up in book seven, for example, and will hark back to a character that disappeared in books one and two, then I try, wherever possible, to make it flow so it doesn’t look odd. If it sticks out like a sore thumb when I read it back to myself I know it’s wrong, so I’ll instantly go back and panel beat it and polish it.
I know you’ve read a lot of English and American crime.
It’s been a major part of my life. I’ve read all the things I’m supposed to read from the whole ‘literature’ genre, but the stories I’ve enjoyed the most, the ones that make me want to switch the telly off and read a book (as one is supposed to do at least once a week), have all, without a doubt, been in the crime genre. English and American crime were the only options that you had for a long time, but now you’ve got some wonderful crime fiction coming from other countries, for example Scandinavia, which is superb and on the occasions when I’m likened to those writers I’m delighted. But now the South African crime writers are making their presence felt. People like Margi Orford are colossal talents. They’ve got things to say that we should listen to. There’s an Israeli crime writer, D A Mashani, and I was lucky enough to read a pre-release copy of his book recently. People are going to go nuts over it.
I do find books from different countries very interesting because the writing styles are so different. What particularly fascinates you about these types of literature?
You can actually divide British crime fiction up into vast chunks. There are major differences just between north and south crime fiction. The whole Tartan Noir thing is a phenomenon as well. But overall yes, I think there is a distinctly British voice, which is essentially not quite stiff upper lip but somehow conveys the sense that a crime is an aberration and isn’t normal in society. The thing I like about the American crime fiction is that people kind of expect someone to get shot. Murder seems more like a part of life. The body count is usually quite high and nobody really bats an eyelid if somebody has been bumped off in some perverse and theatrical way. I can’t really say whether it fits reality or not because I don’t know America. I’ve no idea what it’s like to live there, but I do know that British fiction tries to exist within a world that could work, that could mirror reality. The serial killers that are created in British crime fiction, to me anyway, seem less absurd but also sometimes less fun. Whereas American crime fiction can be quite brash and loud, and there could be another body at the end of each chapter. But it’s very compelling and you do find yourself desperate to read it, whereas with British crime fiction, I guess you spend a lot more time trying to get into the character’s mind. It’s more a study of people. That’s a generalisation I suppose, but it’s the inference I’ve drawn from reading them.
Scandinavian Noir is not dissimilar to American literature because it has the loud bangs and explosions, but also has a gloomy protagonist and some wonderful writing describing these bleak and washed out settings. I think it’s a nice bridge between American and British crime fiction. Essentially though, I reckon that if you like crime fiction then you like crime fiction from anywhere. Most crime fiction is basically a human story and most human traits are universal. We all understand justice, resolution and redemption. Those things are the cornerstone of any crime fiction novel, but it’s all really just a question of how to weave a fresh story around that spine.
You talk about the description of the surroundings. I was fascinated by your description of McAvoy’s surroundings. You have a very lyrical way of writing, combined with a journalistic style of short, punchy sentences, which carry the story along. For example there was the bit where they switch the lights on in the police station and you describe everyone being reflected in the window. How do you managed to structure these things so people are getting these quick images?
Essentially I came up with a good idea and fleshed it out. I have a hundred new ideas a day but there’s a difference between a good idea and a good book, so it was a case of imagining whether or not it was a story that could sustain a reader through 25 chapters. I throw away a lot, because a lot of it is just whimsy or nonsense. But I realised with Dark Winter there was some weight to it. So I sketched out a structure and just started writing.
In terms of actually getting what I see into the heart, soul and mind of the person reading it, that’s just quite instinctive thing. I’ll read back a few lines and I think about whether the reader’s going to get the right things from the words I’ve picked. If they’re not going to understand how the character they’re reading about feels, then I’m just not writing well enough. So then it’s a case of, ‘What do I want the reader to feel in this.’ It’s a case of moving the plot along while ensuring the humanity and empathy remain. So, for example, if McAvoy is cold, then I really want the reader to shiver. How do I do that? Pick the right words.
To me, I think you have to connect with the book. The idea that people are reading three or four lines of me then sending a tweet, or checking Facebook or sending a text, makes my blood run cold. I want people to be absolutely engrossed and if I don’t think that what I’m writing is engrossing enough or emotionally affecting enough, then it’s not good enough and I’ll write it again until it is. Also, when all said and done, I’m quite fortunate to have quite a lyrical turn of phrase and I know how to express myself. If I actually had to analyse it and pull it apart, I’d be terrified the pieces wouldn’t go back together again. Although my editor would tell me I sometimes express myself too much.
I’m pleased you did enjoy the poetry in there, because I do believe there is a place in crime fiction for that kind of writing. It doesn’t all have to be gallows humour and one-dimensional landscapes. I enjoy the poetry, the richness of language, the scope for description…
Still, it’s a case of balance. My editors, fabulous though they are, do sometimes say, ‘You’re overegging the pudding there. Just back off a bit.’ Sometimes I could write three pages describing how McAvoy feels looking at the sunset. But then I think, ‘Hang on, you’re writing crime fiction here. Let’s see if I can reduce it down to two lines.’ If you can get that right you’re on to a winner.
If I’m ever famous or I’m ever a big deal, I’ll probably write some thousand page attempt at literature, which would just be full of my meandering prose that five or six Guardian readers will enjoy. Then the publishers will say, ‘Yeah, right. Go back to writing crime fiction.’
How much do you have to negotiate with your editor?
Well I’ve been pretty fortunate in that I picked the right publisher. And I’ve also been incredibly fortunate in that I was in a position to actually pick the publisher. There were several different publishers all putting in a bid for me. Two months before that I would give my right arm to be in that position. Quercus just seemed to understand what I wanted to do. They had no qualms at all about the setting and the story and were very much on board with the vision that I had.
In terms of the original manuscript that I sent in and the book that’s now on the shelves, I’d say about 95% is the same. But those changes were essentially cuts. If you make your money through journalism, then you’re used to being edited. You often deliberately write more than is required, with a view that eventually somebody will edit it to fit the box provided. So I kind of did that. I wrote 100,000 words with the view that I was writing a 90,000 word novel. I certainly didn’t get precious when the editor said, ‘There’s stuff that has to go. It’s good writing but it doesn’t move the plot along’ or ‘It’s extraneous.’ Thankfully being a journalist means you’re used to people hacking through your art with a big blunt knife and looking back I agree with every cut that was made.
You say you had more than one publisher interested in you, when I know you’ve previously experienced multiple rejections. How did you go through the process of getting to a point where everyone suddenly wants to publish you?
If I ever release an album it’s going to be called ‘Multiple Rejections’, because for many years that summed me up.
Basically, the story goes like this. I was about 20 (that was about 15 years ago), when I put the final full stop on a complete book. At 20 you don’t really know anything and have a bit of an ego and I rather presumed that I would just write a book and send it to a publisher and they’d publish it and it’d become an overnight sensation. Then I started looking at the industry more carefully and discovered that without an agent you’d get nowhere. So I thought, ‘Right, I’ll get an agent.’ So I sent off the manuscript to various agents. That was agony. Half of them were returned unopened and the rejection letters made no reference to the stories or characters or anything constructive. That rather set the tone for the next few years. I was a journalist by day and scribbling as much as I could at night, trying to come up with better and more believable characters, but in essence nobody gave a damn whether I was doing it or whether I wasn’t.
I thought to myself, ‘I know I’m a pretty good journalist and a good writer. I know I’ve got something here.’ But as a northern, working-class lad, you kind of get a chip on your shoulder when you read these stories in G2 about somebody who’s just been given a six-figure publishing deal and you think, ‘Yeah, but who did they go to school with? Whose daddy helped?’ Because if you come from an estate in Carlisle, there’s nobody whose daddy helps. You don’t know anyone who can grease the wheels or open doors for you.
In my case, I got pretty downhearted about it, but also it made me more determined. Then, when I was about 27 or 28, I finally wrote a book that was good. Prior to that they’d been okay, but nothing special. An agent picked it from the slush pile and liked it and suddenly it all looked positive. I rather thought that it was all about to happen. But no. We spent a few years hearing back from endless publishers who said, ‘We love the writing, but it’s too dark’, or ‘It’s been done before’, or ‘You’re too similar to ‘David Peace.’ So essentially, nothing happened.
Finally I decided to change my style. The problem we’d had was that my characters were too cynical, too dark and too miserable. I needed to come up with a hero. I needed to come up with a character that readers would connect with and who they’d want to do well in a way that I do with my favourite fictional characters. So I started thinking about the whole notion of what it is to be good and what really constitutes a good man in this rather grey time of ours. McAvoy arrived pretty much fully-formed and suddenly I could see his life, his feelings, his ambitions, his insecurities, and as soon as I started to type I knew I was channelling somebody believable and real.
Dark Winter came together pretty quickly after that. McAvoy led me through it and by the final full-stop I knew I had something. So I went back to my agent and we tried to get some interest, but again we got nowhere. To be honest it became quite clear then that he’d rather lost enthusiasm for it and was gracious enough to say, ‘Perhaps you should try another agent, who will take a fresh look at this.’ We parted on good terms and I’m grateful to him for getting me started.
Anyway, I was quickly put in touch with the wonderful Oliver Munson, who was then at Blake Friedman Literary Agency. An editor who had liked my stuff said that Oli and I would get on perfectly, and it turned out he was right. I sent in the manuscript and Oli read it on his Blackberry on a flight to Budapest. By the time he got back, he was very keen to represent me. A fortnight after that I actually had real-life editors ringing me up and saying, ‘We’d love you to go with us’, which really was the stuff of dreams. I had to keep checking with my missus that she hadn’t found a genie in a lamp. It was really bizarre that I went from no interest at all to suddenly everybody wanting to know about me. It was blissfully surreal, given it was the same book and I was the same writer using the same imagination and a few weeks before, nobody gave a shit who I was or what I was doing. It was quite heartening in a way to know that I was right to stick at it, but I still get cold sweats worrying about the fact that I was so close to it never happening for me. There’s a parallel universe where I’m a very cynical, miserable, 50-year-old and where my dreams never came true. So I’m just utterly delighted that things went the right way. But yes, it was perseverance that was the key for me and not taking any publishers hostage, which was Plan B.
Yes, like one of your characters who sent publishers threatening messages…
Yes, that was a big cathartic moment for me. I felt pretty much at ease with expressing those sentiments because I know what it feels like to know, utterly to your soul, that you should be somewhere else, that you are living the wrong life. I’m a halfway decent journalist, but I knew that given half the chance I could be a writer that mattered, or at the very least, somebody who could shift a few books. I knew that I just needed to get a foot in the door but nobody would let me I’m good at maybe two or three things in life, but I’m dreadful at almost every other thing I turn my hand to. But if you can’t use those things you’re good at and which inspire you to make a life, then you only feel half-formed. I knew I wanted to write books, but I just wasn’t being given the chance. It just seemed as if there were so many obstacles and I didn’t know what to do to get people to listen, or in my case, read. I used a little bit of all that to create the character of Chandler.
What made you think that the book was different to the other ones you’ve written?
It has more of a sense of light to it, I suppose. When I think of all the other books I wrote, they were almost black on black. They very much represented a depressed miserable man, even though the writing was pretty good. But, for a reader, it was a bit like being battered round the head and publishers were right to tell me that there enough people on the shelves doing that already.
With McAvoy, I got away from the notion of trying to accurately represent a very bleak mindset and instead to write for the pleasure and understanding of a reader who perhaps isn’t a miserable bastard. Once I stopped doing that and decided to tell a story, it was quite liberating. I had to change the way I felt about the whole job of a writer. I told myself, ‘I’m essentially a storyteller. Let’s think of a bloody good story. Let’s think of a hero who can have that for us. Let’s think of a villain and the reasons why they’re bad.’ If you do it by that paint by numbers approach you get a useful sense of perspective. It reminds you what the job is. You have to stop writing with a view to impressing a handful of people with your genius and perspicacity when it comes to analysing the bleak heart of the universe. That’s just self-indulgent piffle. Just tell the story. That’s really the filter that I’ve applied to everything since. I keep asking myself, ‘Is it an interesting story? If you read it in the newspaper would you tell your mates in the pub?’ I think that’s really the essence of what I’m trying to do.
The dialogue is very good. Does that come from your journalism background?
Definitely. I’ve had endless chats while waiting for juries to return, or hanging around outside cemeteries, or waiting for bodies to come out of a house or a collapsed building or some area of woodland in the arse-end of nowhere. You just stand around chatting and finding things out, but not through the straightforward question and answer session that is often portrayed in books and TV. Sometimes you just have to have a chat with somebody and later on and when you’re looking back in your notes, you realise you’ve gleaned a cracking tale.
I tried to put a little bit of that in the dialogue. These are people who aren’t having conversations just to move the plot forward; these are colleagues who know quite a lot about each other. To me, British human beings spend a lot of time gently winding each other up and having a bit of needle with one another. I think when you’re aiming for an authentic depiction of a fictional crime, those kind of things are quite important so I tried my damnedest to reflect it. I felt that in that regard I was bringing something to the dance that perhaps not everybody else could. I’m quite familiar with coppers and journalists, and criminals for that matter. I kind of have a picture of how, certainly around here anyway, a lot of people communicate with one another. So it is important to me that the book rang true.
It is this element of research that’s so important. A lot people who write crime novels actively have to go out and do research to understand how the police force operates, for example. What was an interesting detail in your book was the noise of the boots on the deck of a trawler that one of the characters could hear. What sort of research did you do into trawlermen?
It’s impossible to be a journalist in Hull (and a journalist who likes to have a drink in the Old Town) without coming across an awful lot of old trawlermen. It’s what the city was built on. I’ve always been the kind of person who became a journalist because I find human beings quite fascinating and there’s nothing I love more than having a chat with a stranger in a bar and hearing about their life. In Hull, you’ll find that almost everybody that you have a chat with, and who’s over 60, has had a life that sounds like something from a movie.
I spent years just nattering on over a couple of pints of Stella with these old trawlermen telling me about the mates they’d lost and the trawlers they were on. I’d just be open mouthed, listening as they matter-of-factly told me how it felt to be about to die on a frozen ship, numb to the soul, lost in a storm that seemed intent on tearing them apart. These were real lives; real people. So I’ve absorbed quite a lot of that and chosen to use these amazing glimpses into a life most people can’t begin to comprehend. Honestly, if you look down the bar in some pubs in the Old Town and count people’s fingers, there will be somebody with two or three missing. They’re the old trawlermen. They’ve lost their fingers to frostbite or had them hacked off or pulled off by winching gear, 70 miles off the coast of Iceland. These are people who properly have lived. So when you try and absorb some of that, you have a sense of duty try to bring a smattering of it to the page.
Really, it does sound as if you’ve got such a lot of material to go at and that there’s plenty more, apart from crime novels, you can write about.
I’d be one hell of a tour guide, although I’d be quite a miserable one. If I’m driving my kids anywhere, I can’t help myself. When we pass a street corner I find myself saying, ‘Ah, so-and-so got kicked to death there’ or, ‘The guy who lives in that house is a witness in this case’ or, ‘The guy who got struck off from the Council lives there’. All these kind of things are living in my head.
When you start writing about an area, you have to use what you know. In my case I know what a journalist should about this area. I know a lot of the headlines. The hard part is working out how to give that little snippet of flavour about an area without going on and on and distracting from the narrative. If I’m not careful I find myself giving endless local flavour, but after three or four pages of description, I’m thinking to myself, ‘Come on, get on with it.’ I always try, when I’m writing, to make sure any local anecdotes or yarns are actually moving the main thrust of the narrative forward. It is a fine art I’m not entirely sure I’ve got right yet.
McAvoy’s boss, Pharaoh, is wonderful. How did you make her up?
I love her, I really do. To be honest I love strong, sassy, independent female officers. Thankfully I’ve met many in my career. The depictions on TV of female police officers are usually pretty far off the mark. Not many get it right. There are some masters like Ann Cleeves or Val McDermid or Mari Hannah, but too many seem to be caricatures. In my experience, the vast majority of female police officers are caring people, trying to make it in a predominantly blokish environment and the way they do that is by outbloking the blokes.
If you happen to be a mum, like Pharaoh is, you also have a sense of identity that goes beyond the uniform and badge. She is a strong enough character to say, ‘Here I am. Take me or leave me.’ She can talk with the blokes about the filthiest stuff imaginable, but she is also a very caring, maternal character. She can’t see somebody cry without wanting to offer them a hanky and a cuddle, even though she is still going to slap cuffs on them later. She’s a decent soul and a lot tougher than McAvoy. So over the course of the books the relationship between those two will be interesting. Basically the books will be called the McAvoy series but for me as the series develops, it’s really McAvoy and Pharaoh.
That’s really what makes the book. If it was just McAvoy, then it wouldn’t be as dynamic.
McAvoy is a bit too much of a pansy to sustain your interest for that long. There are times where he is almost inert with indecision, because he doesn’t know what the right thing is to do. It’s Pharaoh who’s there to say, ‘Trust in yourself. Believe in yourself. People make mistakes, but the very fact that you want to do the right thing, suggests that whatever you do will be motivated by good.’ She would never say it like that, but she would find a way to phrase it in a way that’ll give McAvoy little bit more confidence to follow his gut and stand up for what he believes in. Because, for all that he is a big, giant of a man, he’d blush himself to death given half a chance.
His wife is also a very dynamic person. He certainly knows where he is with her.
Oh yes. She is 10 years younger than him, but she’s much more streetwise. He’s originally from a croft in the Highlands and has almost been airdropped into a city environment without any real understanding of what one is and is still really finding his feet. Then you have the fact he somehow managed to bring down the head of CID and then got stitched up by his bosses while expecting to be paraded as a hero. That all just makes him feel more alienated. So I’m trying to get that across as best I can, but without endless flights of introspection. Really, it’s the women in his life who free him up to be a hero. His wife is very supportive. If he’d only listen to her, he’d feel a lot more secure and content than he is. But because he can’t bring himself to believe he’s been this lucky, he doesn’t value himself in the way she values him. That’s where problem arises, in that she can’t understand why he can possibly feel insecure and not know that he’s brilliant, whereas he can’t think of any single reason why anyone would think he was worth their time.
So as the books progress, his relationship between the two women is going to get more interesting?
Absolutely. McAvoy is very much a raw character in this first book. But if I’m still writing him with the same inner monologue eight books from now, then I don’t think I’ll have done him justice. I want him to develop. If you meet a copper at 50, they’re a very different copper to the person they were 35 and I want that to be the case with McAvoy. But I can’t ever see him becoming a cynical, jaded, jazz loving alcoholic, to be honest. He’s not the kind of guy that you’d visit and take a bottle of whisky with you and a pizza. He’s very happy with a bottle of Irn-Bru and a bag of Mini-eggs. He knows his vices.