Steven Dunne. A Serial Writer.
I do like reading to be an immersive experience. If the plot throws plenty of challenges, then so much the better. So it’s not surprising that the quality of Steven Dunne’s writing has been recently acknowledged by The Unquiet Grave being short-listed for the prestigious East Midlands Book Award.
Why did you decide to write crime novels?
I discovered crime novels relatively late in my reading life and have enjoyed them for the last 20 years since reading Silence of the Lambs in the early 1990s. I read Agatha Christie when I was young, almost as children’s books, but grew out of them because they seemed too simplistic and had very little social relevance to a working class boy growing up in Yorkshire. But Silence of the Lambs just blew me away. I tried other writers after that but didn’t find many to equal Thomas Harris. And I was always trying to improve the plots of the thrillers I was reading, so when I decided to write a novel, it seemed a good idea to have a stab at a serial killer thriller.
When I came up for the plot for The Reaper, not having a contract was a mixed blessing because I had as much time as I wanted to perfect it – a real contrast to these days. I wrote The Reaper on and off for six years and, having to earn a living meant I had the luxury of being able to put it in a drawer for three months, forget about it then come back to it fresh.
In a way I only wrote The Reaper as an exercise to show I could do it after my wife called my bluff one night when I was pulling apart a particular thriller. ‘Why don’t you write one if you’re so clever?’ she said. Well I had a go and was relieved when I finally presented the manuscript to her and she loved it. In fact, she insisted I should try to get it published.’ The rest is history, as they say and The Reaper was published in 2009 by Harper Collins.
What was it about Silence of the Lambs that really set you off on crime writing?
It was the total amorality of the serial killer that appealed to me. Just this idea that somebody could wipe away all of society’s mores, not even consider them as important or relevant, and commit crimes according to their own needs and whims. Nobody else’s desires or rights had any value and I thought it was fantastic the way Harris portrayed Buffalo Bill and the FBI’s search for him. His agenda was so ruthlessly self-centred and nothing else mattered. That impressed me.
Part of the reason for that is that people are, in a strange way, drawn to serial killers. They envy aspects of their psychopathy, particularly organised serial killers. We see them almost as omnipotent figures who plan carefully. They possess the ruthlessness to set and follow their agenda at all times, in contrast to ordinary people. We have to make daily compromises that eat away at our sense of self and lead to feelings of powerlessness. We have to suffer fools, serial killers don’t. Consequently their killings often reflect exasperation with people who bore or irritate them. I love the idea of killing and eating a census taker purely as a response to annoyance and irritation. We all feel the same at times. And all this has played into recent fictional serial killers becoming attractive antiheroes – they have the power and the will that we don’t possess and the ruthlessness to act where we would keep silent and tolerate.
It was probably also the quality of the writing?
Yes it was all done in such a matter-of-fact way. It’s second nature now, but we forget that 26 years ago, when Silence of the Lambs came out, just the acceptance that the FBI agents had that these people exist and this is what they did and that there were logical steps to be taken to solve the crime. There was no gnashing of teeth and pulling out of hair. There was just ‘This is the situation and these are the steps that we take to hunt these killers.’ I thought that was wonderful. The FBI had a method and a science which informed their protocol and involved putting aside the emotional aspects of crime fighting and being totally professional. And Harris was a journalist covering crime. He was able to give it that very authentic everyday aspect.
If you encounter a problem with your story-writing how do you overcome it?
I don’t have a set technique as such. I write and then rewrite. It’s the rewriting that’s the key to getting over snags with the storyline. When you reread you either like a section or you don’t. If I don’t like it then I change it and if I’ve left it alone long enough I usually find I can work out what’s wrong with it, and what needs to be done. More often than not I’m not pleased with most of the first draft, and before I’ve finished the draft, I will most likely have worked out what’s going to change. I’m much happier writing the second half as I have a more holistic idea of the finished piece, but often this means I have the second half of a novel that doesn’t fit the first half. I am constantly making notes or seeding the first half with what needs to change.
After that it’s just a question of constant rereading until the whole feels smooth and well put together. The faster my rereads, the closer I am to the finished article. If I’m not happy with something I do feel under more pressure, especially the closer I come to deadline.
What tells you that you don’t like what you’ve written?
If it’s not flowing and making me smile. I know I shouldn’t be smiling when writing about some of the violence in my work but the more emotionally wrenching it is, the greater the impact on the reader, the happier I get. I smile when thinking of the effect a particular scene is going to have on people or a twist I’ve managed to bury nicely in the text.
Also the dialogue and repartee has to feel natural. I find writing prose when in the middle of an action scene very easy, but it’s when people are into exchanging information that I find I have to work at getting that naturalistic feel across to the reader. I hate conversations in TV programmes or books where the characters converse unnaturally. I’m always thinking of the internal monologue. What would two detectives say to each other, for instance? So I have to find ways to ‘grease the wheels’ of dialogue to keep it authentic and still get across what I need to say.
For instance experienced police officers DO NOT explain acronyms to each other for the benefit of the readers. When that happens in a book I’m reading, the author has lost me. Thriller readers, let’s face it, are all amateur detectives and don’t want to feel as though they’re being patronised. We want and expect to do a little work to understand what’s in front of us. So when I’m writing I want my readers to work as well. The more challenging it is the more people like it. I hope.
It is a problem trying to get information over to a reader while making the experiences read naturalistic. How do you achieve this?
That’s a very hard question to answer. I have to try and be as oblique as possible. I try to write as though eavesdropping on a conversation. If you need somebody else to come and explain something, then that’s what you have to do, although it’s better to almost have the readers listening in, discovering the information for themselves. It’s a tricky balancing act but, either way, it’s important that readers have the information they need to solve the case.
Being a teacher I know about getting tricky concepts over in real life, doing it without patronising the children and teaching them to dig some of the gold themselves. This is the process I TRY to apply to my writing.
Your books are very complex in terms of plot and you do reach a point where you, as a reader, can see how things that have come before are linked and make sense as a whole. This means you have to drop hints or clues all the way through. Do you plot very carefully before you start writing or do you just start writing and see where it leads?
You’re referring to the process I call ‘salting’. I do have a general framework but I also write with an eye to seeing where it goes and things can change. In my current book A Killing Moon I’m at the stage where I’m getting to the denouement, which is an exciting phase, but also one of the hardest. During the novel I will have set a large number of plates spinning, so this is the most taxing point of writing. With numerous plotlines on the go I’ve had to keep them moving and the reader aware of them but now is the time to catch the plates safely and explain the mystery.
Things will change during the course of writing. It’s a waste of time really to sit down and do a 10 page plan of exactly what’s going to go on because I know that the last half of the novel may be modified if something better occurs to me. Quite often it does, sometimes as late as a couple of weeks before handing it in which cranks up the pressure because if it’s a killer twist, an extra turn of the knife, I may have to salt the entire script to accommodate it.
I don’t know if my process is different to other crime writers but when I set off I have a moral template as much as a plot framework. This is almost more important. I don’t start with the plot. The moral of the story usually comes first. In other words, I’ve already decided what I need to say in the novel, something about the nature of existence usually. In Deity the message was about how people prey on the vulnerable, those not sure of who they are, and can drive them to self-harm and suicide. Perhaps not something you would expect in a crime novel.
However, it’s important not to feel like you’re preaching to people. The key scene in Deity is Brook and his daughter arguing about her attempted suicide. I loved writing that scene and gave it a lot of attention until I was really pleased with it. It’s a scene that informs the book and how vulnerable young people think. Through the daughter, it’s possible to get another perspective on the story. She only plays a small part in the book but it is crucial.
How did you deal with continuity issues?
That’s the part that actually drives me insane, because most of the book is in my head. I have notebooks, but to save time I will usually leave prompts in capital letters in the script. I’m always rereading what I’ve written, so when something occurs to me while writing I’ll make a note and move on, while I’m in the flow. That way I can make sure that issues can be actioned later. The closer I get to completion the more these notes are tidied up or simply deleted, having become irrelevant.
Sometimes I can have five or six things suddenly occur to me, tripping out, and that’s when I revert to the physical notebook.
You do seem to have a very ‘Sherlock’ and ‘Moriarty’ type of dynamic to some of the books that involve DI Brook and his nemesis ‘The Reaper’.
I wanted DI Brook to have someone worthy to hunt. You can’t showcase a great detective unless you have a villain worthy of his attention. I wouldn’t be interested in a detective dealing with car theft or other minor offences. Brook is always railing against stupid people doing stupid crimes and how wearying it is because for CID it involves bureaucratically gathering up the people and filling in the paperwork.
With The Reaper, DI Brook is challenged and manipulated by an equal if not superior intellect. The whole of The Reaper is a tightrope walk for Brook. He is torn between what he should be doing and what he wants to do. The great challenge for me was to show Brook wrestling with his conscience, getting to a point where he thinks he has control of himself and the situation. He has battled with his opponent and won but then has the rug pulled from under his feet and in many ways he’s back at the beginning, the same uncertainties about what he’s done haunting him.
What is interesting though is that even though you have this ‘super’ villain, who seems to be out to get away with all sorts of things, he still works in within the bounds of reality.
That’s right. I didn’t want an all-knowing all-conquering super villain but someone Brook could almost relate to as an equal, a friend almost as they share so many opinions. They just disagree on to what extent they should act to help cure society’s ills.
It helps that Brook is a deep thinker and his uncertainties make him vulnerable to The Reaper’s siren call. Not to harp on too much about the ‘Sherlock’ issue, but what I liked about Holmes was that within two and a half pages you were into a mystery. So I deliberately made Brook a very interior person, almost isolated within his CID work, also divorced, which is de rigueur, I know. But I needed him on his own, so that the game is immediately afoot as they say.
And to show his human side I have given him a daughter, who is useful for helping us fill in some of the blanks of his past. But I don’t like too much domestic with my detectives. I don’t want to know about messy relationships. I didn’t want all this extraneous stuff, because to me ‘the chase’ is the thing, and I find it much more interesting to hurl Brook straight into the story.
In many ways, Brook wants out. He would rather not get involved in some of the heart wrenching cases he’s pitched into and he spends time trying to keep his distance because he knows what it’s going to take out of him but it never lasts. He’s regularly on the point of resignation but knows he’d spend too much time dwelling on the past so although he dreads another complex case, when it comes along he can’t stop himself, until whatever he’s working on is solved, usually at great cost to his mental equilibrium.
Brook is an ordinary chap, brighter than most, observant and honourable. He often thinks he’s doing the right thing when he’s doing the wrong thing and when he realises it he carries one more emotional scar to live with. And although he’s not happy about what he’s done in the past, he’s able to live with it.
How did you work out how to write the character of The Reaper?
When I created The Reaper, I wanted a serial killer with whom readers could have a lot of empathy. This was pre-Dexter. I wanted Brook and the reader to be torn, to listen to The Reaper’s motivation for his crime and find it as persuasive as Brook finds it. And there are many people who would agree with The Reaper’s philosophy and methods. Identify the scum and clear them off the face of the earth, make the world a better place.
That allowed me to give Brook conflict, because when he sees the people that he has to deal with on a regular basis, the petty criminals imposing themselves onto the lives of decent people, and thinks about how much better the world would be without them, to see them slaughtered doesn’t concern him as much as he knows it should. This is the heart of the novel. Brook knows he should care about The Reaper’s victims but can’t find it in him.
The other original thing about the Reaper was that he is not going after big criminals, but the offenders who blight ordinary people’s lives – petty criminals in fact. I’m not talking about kidnappers or bank robbers or even murderers. Most of our problems with crime are when somebody three doors down throws his beer cans in our garden or slashes our tyres or sets fire to our dustbin. It’s the small stuff that people really feel uptight and upset about because it’s right outside our door. It makes us feel insecure in our own homes and I was confident that I would strike a chord with readers.
The Reaper is literally that little devil on each ordinary person’s shoulder saying, ‘Take matters into your own hands and deal with that petty criminal on your street the next time he crosses your path. And if it comes to it, you might as well kill him to end the misery and suffering he’s likely to cause for the rest of his life.’ This type of vengeance we just can’t do. The Reaper can and does. Serial killers act on their desires. We don’t.
The Reaper is like Buffalo Bill in that he has his own set of morals.
He’s a lot more logical than Buffalo Bill, not a psychotic and his crimes aren’t driven from a psycho-sexual viewpoint. So he was what I would call a disinterested serial killer. In other words, he’s killing for the benefit of everybody and not for himself.
I was a bit miffed when ‘Dexter’ came out when I’d just finished The Reaper. But I think there are enough differences between the two.
How much research do you have to do for each book?
As much as needs doing. I’m not slavish about it. I don’t want to spend two or three pages explaining something to the reader. Usually what I’ll do is make notes in the script that say ‘Check this’ or ‘Are you sure?’ The key to writing these sorts of books is to make it look like I know more than I do. I don’t always know more than my readers. But I do need to check details like the forensics things, so that the reader accepts what I say as reasonable. I do try and make sure everything is right although that is almost impossible. The main thing is to project the illusion of certainty, make people believe what you say.
Some subjects are difficult. Without giving too much away, for my next book A Killing Moon I’m trying to find out how to butcher a pig. So I might have to go to my butcher and ask him to give me a quick run through the procedure because I want to know the names of the parts of the pig, how to prepare the carcass and the names of the tools. Thus I can drop the information into the script as if it’s perfectly natural to be saying this sort of thing and, more often than not, readers will take your expertise on trust.
You are right about this balance of informing the reader but not being patronising by spelling everything out for them.
Yes I remember with The Disciple, my sub editor asking me to explain what some acronyms were. One was MO. I said ‘I’m sorry, but I’m not explaining what MO (Modus Operandi) means because, in the unlikely event someone doesn’t know, they can find out.’ If I do explain it then I expect more than 50% of my readers to be disgusted because they already know – you’re wasting time. They pay me to entertain them not explain simple acronyms that are in common parlance. And of course my readers want to work stuff out for themselves. This is particularly true of crime readers because they are one of the most on-the-ball set of readers that there are. They read crime fiction for the intellectual challenge and are always looking out for these little nuances and clues, which I have to work really hard to hide. To then start explaining simple stuff to people, is an insult to their intelligence and you risk losing them.
So how much of a difference do editors make?
Editors are a massive help. I’ve been lucky at Headline. First Martin Fletcher and now Ali Hope. They can read a book cold and spot things that will jar with the reader that I’ve missed. 90% of the time they are telling me something that I need to know. It’s not necessarily something that I’ve got wrong, but I might be over verbose at a particular point. It’s got to the stage now where I can usually self-edit and identify whether something is over-written and needs trimming or whether a passage is slowing things down and I need to cut it.
The thing I’ve always been reasonably good at is knowing what I’m trying to say. That helps me assess when an editor says I need to make cuts, helps me make the judgement about what I can safely cut. Occasionally I have to bat for a particular scene or passage because it speaks to something else in the book that I want to get across. The editors at Headline are excellent and have helped me to ‘trim the fat’.
And there’s always something, you can never get it completely right. But the editors have made me question what I do, so now I do it without them having to ask. I have a pretty good sense of what they are likely to flag up in the text, so I try to deal with it before the need arises.
Very occasionally sub-editors can steer you in the wrong direction. There was a chapter in The Disciple where I thought the changes had ruined the flow and meaning. I put a note in the MS saying what I thought instead of just changing it back. Having acquired more experience, I now realise now I that I should have held my ground. It’s important to know your own mind.
What do you think a crime reader is after in a crime book?
A puzzle, a challenge, entertainment, vicarious excitement that they don’t have in their own lives. Certainly that’s why I write them. They want to be challenged and taken away from their normal routine – and if possible I want to try and shock them. Touch wood, I’ve had very few readers of my four books turn round and say to me ‘Yes, I knew where that was going.’ Most people said ‘Ok, you fooled me there. I see the clues were there but I just didn’t put them together.’
I hate reading a thriller where you feel a particular suspect has almost got a beacon flashing over his/her head saying guilty and you turn out to be right. Too easy.
Thrillers work best when the reader knows they’ve been given the information they need but they’re not quite sure what it is or what it shows them. That’s where salting comes in – dropping in vital clues without the reader spotting them and realising they’re relevant.
Have you ever written short stories?
I’ve written one short story about six months ago to be given away at the release of one of my paperbacks. It never appeared for some reason. My publishers wanted to give away a free short story on Amazon. It’s not really a métier I feel comfortable in. Most of my ideas are big ideas and need some room to breathe. So if it’s little bits of discarded plotline I can’t use or a single plotline, I might squirrel it away for future use as a short story.
What was the difference between writing a short story and writing a novel?
That’s an interesting question. From the point of view of a reader, I like the characters to have a chance to breathe and to get inside the skin of the characters without having to tell readers what they’re like. Show, don’t tell!
I find the constrictions of the short story just too limiting. Maybe I’m not a very good writer. I do like that the key thing about short stories is the twist, the pivot around which the story moves and which is usually revealed right at the end. The short story I wrote was actually about DI Brook and DS Noble, so I felt the characters needed no explanation and it’s likely the people who are going to read my short story would be readers of the series anyway.
Do you ever feel that you want to have a go at writing in another genre?
The issue of genre is such a wide-ranging discussion these days. The crime genre has expanded massively, which provides a lot of scope for a writer. I do have an idea for another novel, which if you’re stretching a point could drop into the crime genre but it feels more like literary fiction to me. But the crime genre has expanded so much that many books are marketed under that banner that years ago would have been considered something else. Family or relationship dramas are now being touted as domestic noir. That’s the popularity of the genre that market makers are shoehorning other novels into it for marketing purposes. A book like The Silent Wife for instance – a portrait of a disintegrating marriage – would not have been considered a thriller 20 years ago. Crime sells.