M.P. Wright’s crime novel Heartman is published in a few short days – we reviewed it earlier in the week, of course. You can see that by scrolling down, or if that’s too much effort, click here. I’m happy to say that Mark’s been kind enough to give us the Intel on where the inspiration for the book came from, and on his writing regime. He’s got some really interesting things to say about the hanging in there during the submissions process, and the importance of literary agents. So check this out…
Tell us about JT Ellington…
Joseph Tremaine Ellington is 42 year old Barbadian, who has recently emigrated from his home island in the Caribbean, and has reluctantly settled in the St Pauls district of Bristol. Ellington had been a serving police Sargeant with the Barbados Police Force; he’s a widower and a man with closely guarded secrets. It’s the winter of 1965 and JT finds himself out of work, broke and about to be thrown out on the street by his landlord. The word around St Pauls is the Ellington is an ex copper and that he’s generally bad luck to be around, he’s distrusted by many in his own community and he doesn’t enamour himself with the Bristol police force when he goes head to head with them either.
He’s not your traditional private investigator. JT’s not looking to become a detective, far from it. He just wants work. The job is forced upon him by necessity. He needs food in his belly and a roof over his head, its as simple as that. When we first meet him on a snowy evening, he’s nursing an empty beer glass in a local back street pub searching for work along the ‘job’ columns of the Bristol Evening Post. Desperation forces Ellington to undertake a missing person’s inquiry for local Jamaican Alderman, Earl Linney; it’s not long before JT soon finds himself being dragged into a murky underworld of local vice, corruption and kidnapping.
Where did the inspiration for Heartman come from?
The origins for Heartman and my Bajan detective, J T Ellington have been hanging around at the back of my head for a good ten years. I’d written for twenty years and done nothing with it. I wrote all kinds of stuff, plays, poetry, screenplays. Heartman was originally titled, ‘Rock a Bye Blues’ and from the beginning I’d got a three book story arc that I had mapped out very clearly in my mind I knew I wanted to create a character that had not been seen too much in the UK crime fiction arena. Reginald Hill had created a series of novels in the early 1990’s which featured Joe Sixsmith, a black private detective who walks the mean streets of Luton. I loved the humour of those books but I wanted to put my own mark by showing a grittier and very much flawed character.
Ellington is certainly a close cousin to many of the US noir detectives of the 40’s, 50’s & 60’s and my admiration of characters such as Lew Archer, Phillip Marlowe and Travis McGee is evident in my writing. My own writing has certainly found a degree of inspiration from the crime writers who I’ve been reading for the past 35 years or more; writer’s such as Ross MacDonald, Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, Chester Himes, James M Cain and Walter Mosley, James Lee Burke, Ted Lewis, Phillip Kerr and Phillip Kerr to name but a few.
You’ve stated that the book owes a debt to the American crime writer James Lee Burke – what is it about his books that you really like?
Jim Burke’s writing has been a great inspiration to me and his books have been constant literary companions of mine for over twenty years. If I had to condense the reasons why I adore his work so much I’d have to say that it’s foremost the sense of compassion that he injects into his writing. Burke’s much more than a crime writer and his novels say so much both about the American way of life now, in the 21st century and in its historical past. He’s a true master at evocating strong emotions in the reader and there’s no one like him for offering up a solid sense of ‘real’ time & place.
Louisiana State belongs to Jim Burke, and there is a passion represented in the crime novels for both the fading Cajun and Creole lifestyles that he grew up with and the emergence of a new, modern Southern state that is far removed from his own childhood. Burke voices such important social issues and fears in his detective Dave Robicheaux, surely one of the truly great fictional US detectives.
Why did you choose to set Heartman in 1960s Bristol?
Heartman was originally set out as a TV script, set within the Caribbean community, here in my home city of Leicester. Whilst I love both the city and county I was born in; there simply wasn’t the vastness of scope both logistically and historically – Bristol however hit all the markers. My Partner, Jen, is from Bristol, I fell in love with the city. It’s a port city and even though you are not to near it, you feel close to the sea when you walk its streets. The city has strong ties historically to the West Indies, trade and commerce being one of them and for a long time, sadly, slavery. It was those factual and historical dynamics that drew me to the city and importantly,
Ellington’s new home in St Pauls. The city, beautiful and vibrant as it is today also has a strong historical feeling of the mysterious and slightly dangerous. I like to think of the place as I set it in the 1960’s being a kin to the West Country version of the ‘City of Angels’.
You’re the Writer in Residence at your local pub – how did that come about?
The simple answer is my love of beer, or real ale, to be exact. I’d always written ideas whilst partaking in a pint at the local pub – and as Colin Dexter wrote of, Morse: “When I drink, I think. And when I have to think, I have to drink.”
That’s not to say I write an entire book down the boozer, far from it. The Salmon is a three-times CAMRA award winning pub. It’s atmospheric and it’s also the perfect place to note down ideas. Later this year, after Heartman’s sequel is in the bag, I intend to start creative writing workshops at the pub, get writers in and combine good real ale with good writing. As a note, the pubs in Heartman are all still about and I’ve drank in all of them.
Take us through a typical writing day for you…
I start early, around 7.30am. Once our dogs are walked across the fields and home is spotless, I’m good to go. Heartman is a 60’s set novel and I find I need to be in a certain mindset to work in that defined era. I need to be there whilst I’m writing, walk those streets and hear the characters talk to me. So mobile phones are a no-no and I see and speak to no one whilst I write. I also act out the dialogue, (crazy, I know – but it’s a writers thing, honest). I find that I don’t need an audience to be doing that, so I’m grateful that home is ‘empty’, but for the dogs whilst I work.
Music is important to me. I play the tracks I’m using in the book whilst I write. I’ve also collected film music for 30 years. Soundtracks make good working companions, I find them very inspiring. I make notes, plotlines, story arcs and character descriptions in my faithful Moleskine journal and write at my laptop, often until late into the night.
What’s the hardest lesson you ever had to learn about writing?
I know it’s said that there is a ‘book in everyone.’ Perhaps there is, but I don’t believe writing’s for everyone. Being an author a solitary existence at times and can be all consuming whilst you are working. That said, it’s also a real privilege to write ‘full time’ and I truly wouldn’t want to be doing anything else. I do think the need to write is something that’s in your soul. You just have to do it. Can it be taught? Personally, I don’t think so. Creative writing classes have there merits, critiquing your work with fellow writers being probably the most important one and just being around others creatively is another. But for me true writing is both a discipline and strangely enough, a gift. It’s my job and I’m lucky to do it.
That said, I’m very self critical and will write and rewrite a line till my head throbs and my fingers are numb. I think that’s true of most writers, but I also think those of us that are writing professionally, for a living as it were, realise that your work impacts greatly on others. If I don’t commit to producing my very best writing then that has a direct impact on both the financial and commercial reputations of my publisher, literary agent, my editor, the press and PR department etc.
Ultimately our writing pays the wages and mortgages of others as well as our own. It’s something creative writing students need to recognise when they are looking to get published and wanting to ‘Live The Dream’. Publishing is still very much a ‘Team’ industry. Loose cannons need not apply. It’s all about working together to bring in the best book possible to the reader. That for me is the ultimate goal.
How do you deal with feedback?
As I wrote previously, critiquing your work is vital. Writing commercially is all about hard knocks. I’m not precious about my work. You find that when you get yourself an editor, being precious about your writing won’t help you with what should be you’re most important ‘shared’ creative process. My editor, Karyn Millar, at Black & White was a star. I have nothing but admiration for her skill and talent. She has such a keen eye. She was so precise in her methods of editing and suggestions on Heartman. As soon as I started working with her, I just knew it was right. I wouldn’t want to work with anyone else editorially. Hopefully Karyn’s stuck with me for a while yet.
My only other advice is to ‘Get a Thick Skin’ real quick, especially if you get to the submissions stage, which can be soul destroying if you allow it to be.
I have a number of personal submission stories that could put some blossoming writers from putting pen to paper ever again. Those stories are best not for print.
How have your own experiences shaped your writing?
I think that all writers draw from personal experiences and from their daily lives. Professionally, I’ve worked within the kind of dark environments that have certainly had an impact on my own writing. I’ve been around a fair few ‘unusual characters’ in my time. None of those characters will ever enter my books, I know that for sure. Truth in my case has always been stranger and sadder than fiction. Imagination is all important. I take facets of a personality, nothing more.
That said one of the characters in Heartman is named after my old boss. He’s a man whom I admire greatly and who taught me so much. In that case using his name was more a dedication than anything else. They say, ‘Write about What You Know’ and that’s very true, it must though be metered out with a strong sense of ones one imagination and creativity.
Give me some advice about writing…
I think all writers need to start off at one very important point…
Tell the world, “I Am a Writer”, then and most importantly, have the courage of your vocal convictions and believe in your words. As I wrote early, writing is a discipline and to achieve any commercial success takes time, sometimes a very long time. I can honestly say, that I didn’t not wish to write to become ‘famous’ or to sign autographs. I never gave it a thought. I just had to write.
The worst thing I did was not to tell anyone, as I have just advised. I hid my writing for many years. The best thing I ever did was to say simply when asked what I did for a living was to simply reply, “I’m a writer’ It was a very liberating feeling, I can tell you.
It’s not easy to get noticed in the publishing world, so what you write has to be different, you need an individual voice and that’s very important. It’s no good looking at ‘what’s flavour of the day’ in the industry. Times change very quickly in publishing, be aware of that as a writer. Editors and publishing houses want a number of very simple things when looking at new writers, can they tell a good story that’s well written and can they sell your work out in the big wide world. It may be harsh, but it’s true. If you are gonna sit at a desk for 8 hours or more each day, writing your book then my advice is to make sure that your work is both original and attention grabbing.
Patience is another factor. Publishers take time to make decisions on a new writer. Their commitment to you in the future costs them cash. Their investment has to be spot on. Get used to rejection. All writers get it. It’s all very much part of the writing process. What don’t kill you… etc.
Lastly, and this is only my opinion, is the importance of having a literary agent to represent you. I can only speak from a personal perspective here. My agent, the wonderful, Phil Patterson at Marjacq Scripts has been integral to my finding the right home for Heartman. A literary agent can do so much for a writer and Phil has been so important in my early career. I’m sure they’ll be many writers reading this that will say, “I don’t need a literary agent to get my book out there.” Those writers are welcome to their opinions, but as far as I’m concerned my agent paved the way for me. He made the journey to becoming a published writer so much easier.
What’s next for you?
At the moment, I’m just finishing the final edits to Heartman’s sequel, All Through the Night. My editor has just received the first 20 Chapters to dip into. Always a nervous time waiting to hear back. Heartman’s publishing on July 1st, so it’s a busy time with PR and future arrangements for signings and launches.
This Autumn I’ll be writing a script for a new TV drama followed by the third J T Ellington novel in the winter of this year and early spring of 2015. It’s an exciting time, I’m very lucky and I still have to pinch myself to believe it’s all really happening to me…