We love writers here. Last week we reviewed David Mark’s terrific Aector McAvoy novel Original Skin, and in a couple of weeks — April 3rd, to be precise — the brand-new McAvoy opus Sorrow Bound is published. It seemed like a pretty good excuse to talk to Mark about McAvoy, Hull and, of course, how he gets those pesky words on a page. David Mark gives us The Intel on his writing.
How would you describe DS Aector McAvoy to a potential reader?
He’s a good guy, really. A pretty normal guy. He’s caring and clever and a bit baffled by how the world works. He never really knows how he feels about anything until he’s checked with his wife and his boss but he does truly believe that murder is wrong, which is why he’s a good cop. He’s dogged and very human. I hope he’s reminiscent of the actual detectives I knew when I was a journalist. He cares most about his family but would like to make his little contribution to the world. Physically, he’s 6ft 5, Scottish and able to pull a criminal’s head off if he so choose. The thing is, he’s also shy, clumsy and frightened of hurting anybody by accident. I’ve made life rather difficult for him.
Sex parties and swingers clubs form the backdrop to McAvoy’s investigation in Original Skin. I hesitate to ask what kind of research you did for this book?
Well, being a journalist for so long meant that I’m well used to asking people personal questions about what they get up into their spare time and I wrote several features on alternative lifestyles and spent a lot of time with outwardly very average people who happen to spend their weekends getting up to all sorts of things with all sorts of people. I visited a couple of ‘alternative’ clubs and spent about 40 seconds in a sex cinema in Huddersfield, which seemed like something that should have been dreamed up by Dante. I did a lot of online research and spent some time on forums that would boggle your mind.
I couldn’t get away from the feeling that people were allowing their arousal to make them forget their safety, and that was kind of the jumping-off point for the plot. There are people online asking complete strangers to come to their house and abuse them. I’m not judging, but does that not sound a little fraught with peril? And just imagine if there was a serial killer out there, setting people up for their own elaborate demise ….
I’m still not totally sure. There’s something about the architecture and the feel of the place that simply seems perfect for the kind of books I want to write. It has history, and attitude, and it’s right at the end of the railway line. It’s taken its fair share of beatings and at times it seems like it’s completely on its arse. And it has a crime rate, so the people aren’t surprised by very much, which means that the murders in my books would kind of exist in the real world without anybody batting an eyelid, which adds a kind of authenticity. I guess I’m attracted a certain kind of washed out and desolate beauty. I like being able to describe the crumbling mercantile palaces and the cobbled streets next to the boarded up fish factories and the dying carnations sellotaped to lampposts. It’s just the canvas that my brain likes to hurl itself at.
What’s your writing process? What comes first – plot or character?
With writing a series based around recurring characters, these days it’s all about the plot. But I don’t do what many writers do, which is dream up an elaborate death and then try and find a reason for it afterwards. I try and come up with real people and work out why they would want to do something horrible to somebody else. Everybody has a perfectly good reason to want at least one or two people dead. Most people simply don’t do it.
I’m writing in my head all the time and when I meet somebody who starts telling me about their bastard boss or their bitch of a mother-in-law, I can’t help but start mentally riffing and expounding on how they would do it. The thing is, I come up with foolproof ways of doing it, which is no good to McAvoy, as he has to catch them at the end. In essence, I’ve met so many interesting people in my life that putting together believable characters comes quite easily. I just steal liberally from everybody I’ve ever met.
Take us through a typical writing day for you?
It used to be hellish finding the time to write. I was working full time, nobody gave a damn about my dreams and I was writing in a state of feverish compulsion and a desperate desire to change my life. Nowadays I write for an actual publisher and have deadlines and an accountant and lots of grown-up things to think about. Which means that ideally I’m at my computer by 9am, and will write until one of my loved ones comes home or rings me and tells me to stop, or have a sandwich or go for a pee.
Then I walk the dogs or do something that frees my brain up a little bit, and then I go into dad mode and pick up the kids or take something out of the freezer or fall asleep on the sofa in front of some improving but dull documentary on Sky Arts. Then it’s all whisky and mental anguish until the next day. I love it.
One should never love an author. It’s okay to love their books but don’t ever think that they are representative of the person whose mind they were born in. I love various authors through having met them and become friends. For that reason I love Mari Hannah and Mel Sheratt and Danielle Ramsey. They are some of the nicest and most giving people I have ever met. In terms of which books I love, that’s a hell of a list. I truly admire the works of Ian Rankin and John Connolly, because they’re simply very well written and clever.
I admire the consistent high quality of Val McDermid and the late, great Reg Hill. I like the ambition and writing style of Stav Sherez. I always look forward to new books by Denise Mina, Belinda Bauer and Simon Lelic. Then there are people whose books changed my life when I was a kid, like Terry Pratchett and Bernard Cornwell and Robert Westall, who all made me want to become an author. Of all the questions I get asked, that’s the hardest one to answer!
What’s the hardest lesson you ever had to learn about writing?
I’ve learned a lot these past couple of years and I guess the hardest lesson was the old cliché about ‘less is more’. I have a kind of poetic and lyrical turn of phrase and sometimes I’ll spend four or five pages describing a sunset or a thought process or a glass of wine in intricate detail, which is all very lovely but doesn’t really move the plot along. Cutting that stuff is hard, but the years of being brutally hacked by sub-editors on newspapers gave me some kind of preparation for it. Just because it’s pretty doesn’t mean it helps the book. Thankfully, my editors are brilliant and are very tactful in the way they suggest I lose tracts of beautiful prose.
How do you deal with feedback?
I’m pretty thick-skinned so I don’t get upset by idiots on Amazon leaving me a one-star review because they don’t like the fact I’ve written in present tense or given a character a name they can’t pronounce. What am I supposed to do to please everybody? Some people just like to knock your average score down a couple of notches, and that’s because some people weren’t punched enough as teenagers. I do like to have a discussion with readers and I’m more than happy to hear other people’s opinions and love to chat about their impressions of my work – even if they don’t like it. As for positive feedback, I get all squirmy and embarrassed and uncharacteristically shy about the whole affair.
How have your own experiences shaped your writing?
We all draw on our own experiences. A baby wouldn’t have much to write about unless they were planning a surreal animated novel about life in the womb. I’m a journalist for a rough area in the North so I’ve seen a lot of things that lend themselves to crime fiction. I’ve seen acts of great charity and love, and plenty of brutality. I’ve met people from every walk of life and discovered that everybody’s pretty much the same but some are considerably more interesting than others. I guess that if I were better travelled and been born rich, I wouldn’t have set my books in one of the few cities I’ve visited, and wouldn’t have had the same burning desire to achieve something notable. This is all start to feel like a psychological assessment. Leave me alone.
Just write, for God’s sake. So many people faff about wondering whether they will get a deal or pondering whether to self-publish on Amazon when they haven’t even bloody written anything yet. Get on with it. Writing is the second most fun you can have by yourself. Do it because it makes your brain work harder. Do it because you’re creating something nobody has ever written before. Don’t worry too much about plot or character or settings or accuracy in the first draft. Just get going and you’ll be amazed what your imagination hands you when it wakes from its slumber.
What’s your best advice for an author looking to get into the marketplace…
Try and come up with something new, but not terrifyingly so. The publishing world is an odd one. Publishers don’t really know what they want but they seem to know what they’re scared of. Just be true to yourself and write a book you would want to read. Then take as much advice as you can without starting to second-guess yourself. And please, for me, give yourself time to get a traditional publishing deal rather than self-publishing on Amazon three months after you’ve finished the first draft. Publishing is a slow business. Seriously, it’s not just slow, it moves like a snail dragging an anvil. But when you get a proper book deal there really is no feeling like it.
What’s next for you?
Well, it’s 11.22am on a Monday morning and I don’t think I’ve had any breakfast, so I may go see if there are any toffee muffins left in the bread-bin. On a grander scale, I’ve finished the fourth McAvoy book, written a historical crime novel set in Hull in 1850, and the first McAvoy book is being adapted for TV, so there’s plenty on the horizon. To be honest though, it’s the muffin I’m most excited about.