Tag Archives: Robert Crais

The Intel: Tom Callaghan

Tom Callaghan

Earlier in the week we walked the charming streets of Bishkek in Tom Callaghan’s excellent debut, A Killing Winter, which features the debut of Inspector Akyl Borubaev. Callaghan’s brutal post-Soviet noir is brutal and muscular and funny. In a corrupt state full of bad eggs, Borubaev is as hardboiled as they come.

We promised you Tom Callaghan would give you the intel on Borubaev, Kyrgyzstan and his writing, and here at Crime Thriller Fella, we deliver. Born in the North of England, Callaghan is quite the gadabout. An inveterate traveller, he divides his time between London, Prague, Dubai and Bishkek. Me, I get a nose-bleed crossing postcodes.

Tell us about Akyl Borubaev.

Inspector Akyl Borubaev of the Bishkek Murder Squad in Kyrgyzstan is tough, honest and dedicated. Having recently lost his wife to breast cancer, he is in mourning, unsure that he does any good, caught in a deep depression. But the murders continue, and he has to solve them.

Where did you get the inspiration for A Winter Killing?

I’ve always loved crime fiction, hard-boiled noir for preference, and so that was always going to be the kind of book I’d write. But who needs another crime book set in NYC, or LA, or Miami? Kyrgyzstan is an unknown place, with a lot of problems – what more could a crime writer ask for? As for the plot; (whispers) I made it up.

In the novel, Kyrgyzstan is a state engulfed by gangsters, corruption and sleaze – what do you think the good citizens of Bishkek would make of it?

After two revolutions in ten years, it’s clear that the Kyrgyz will put up with a lot as long as there is food on the table, but when corruption becomes too overt, they act.

A Killing WinterWhat’s your own relationship with the country?

I was married to a Kyrgyz woman, I have a Kyrgyz son, and a home in Bishkek. It’s a country I love, for its beauty, for its culture, for its people. It’s a unique place, in an increasingly homogenised world.

It’s a very timely novel, what with many of the post-Soviet satellite countries afraid that Russia is flexing its muscles again. What do you think the future holds for Kyrgyzstan?

Now that the US air base at Manas has closed, following troop withdrawals from Afghanistan, and with Kyrgyzstan signing trade agreements with Russia over import and export tariffs, people are worried about a decline in living standards. Only time will tell. But I don’t see Putin moving eastwards.

How did the spellchecker on your computer cope with some of the more challenging, consonant-heavy names?

I ignore it: I know how to spell, to parse a sentence and the rules of grammar. Orwell’s rules are ones I live by.

What’s the hardest lesson you ever had to learn about writing?

Laundry and doing dishes always seems more important when you stare at a blank screen.

How do you deal with feedback?

As a professional writer, I have no problems with other people reading what I’ve written. I like to think I’m reasonable and open-minded to fair comment. At the same time, I’ll defend my work if I think I’m right. If I can improve my work through someone else’s suggestions, I will.

Who are the authors you admire, and why?

The Classics: Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, Jim Thompson. Murder taken out of the drawing room and put down a dark alleyway, where it belongs.

The Hard-Boiled Americans: Lawrence Block, James Lee Burke, Robert Campbell, Michael Connolly, Robert Crais, James Ellroy, Carl Hiassen, Joe R. Lansdale, Elmore Leonard, Ed McBain, George Pelecanos, Peter Spiegelman, Andrew Vachss. Crisp dialogue, more twists and turns than an electric eel, great locations.

The Bold Brits: Mark Billingham, John Connolly (alright, Irish, but I had to list him somewhere), John Harvey, Mo Hayder, Simon Kernick, Val Mcdermid, Ian Rankin, Peter Robinson. Murder doesn’t just happen in the USA, you know.

Foreign Settings: John Burdett (Thailand), Sebastian Fitzek (Germany), Stieg Larrson and Henning Mankell (Sweden), Jo Nesbo (Norway), Mike Nichol (S Africa). Because murder happens to non-English speakers as well.

What’s next for you?

The sequel, A Spring Betrayal, is with my agent and publisher, both of whom are very encouraging, and I’m plotting the third book now. Both of them feature Akyl Borubaev. A Killing Winter is already out in German, UK paperback and US publication is in the autumn, and Spanish and Portuguese editions follow next year.

Give me some advice about writing…

Don’t talk about it  –  nothing diminishes the desire to write as quickly as having told everybody the story. Read a lot. I mean a LOT. Read every day. Write every day. Ask for criticism, not praise; that’s what mirrors are for.

Follow Kingsley Amis’ advice: apply the seat of your trousers to the seat of your chair. Learn to spell and use grammar correctly; if you can’t make yourself clearly understood, how is your reader going to cope? Love one genre, but explore others; everything is an ingredient, to use or not, as you see fit.

Try not to be afraid of the blank page/screen, but don’t be over-confident either.

The Intel: JR Carroll

Carroll_JRWe love writers here – east, west, north and south. JR Carroll was born and raised in Melbourne, where he still lives. He worked as a teacher before turning to full-time fiction writing. His first book, about the Vietnam War, was Token Soldiers. This was followed by a series of crime thrillers, including Catspaw, No Way Back, Out of the Blue, The Clan, Cheaters, and Blindside. His latest crime novel, 8 Hours to Die, was released by Momentum last month. JR kindly gives us the Intel on his writing regime.

How would you describe 8 Hours To Die to a potential reader?

8 Hours to Die is a ‘siege thriller’, a well-established sub-genre in which potential victims are attacked by outlaws in their own home. This is everyone’s nightmare: how safe am I in my own house? It is a gritty, ultra-violent story in which the home invaders are ruthless killers hell-bent on breaking in and wreaking havoc, told more or less in real time, to heighten the tension.

What’s the secret to writing a gripping thriller?

I think the secret to a gripping thriller is being able to produce a plot that moves along quickly and credibly and which shocks the reader with each twist and turn. And the characters – even the bad guys – have to be fleshed out and believable; we have to be able to get inside their skins as well as those of the victims. In a way, it’s classic battle between good and evil, and the reader can never be sure which way it’s going to go until the final page. Even when it’s over, it really isn’t over …

What’s your writing process? What comes first – plot or character?

I usually begin with a single idea, which is enough to get the ball rolling … a particular scenario, or a character who seems to me interesting or disturbing. After that, I make it all up as I go along. This approach always involves a lot more thinking than actual writing. I like to see the ending at about the halfway point, and work steadily towards out. Sometimes I write out the last paragraph well in advance. In the case of 8 Hours to Die, the plot definitely came first.

What are the themes you always return to in your writing?

I guess every writer returns to certain themes, and I’m no different. I like the idea of events that occurred in the distant past coming back with devastating effect. An unsolved crime, a secret that won’t go away … A character who returns after a long absence. I also like the idea of flawed heroes – or anti-heroes – as that makes for a much more complicated and interesting protagonist. My fictional world is one in which nothing is black and white.

Take us through a typical writing day for you?

I’m a late starter – maybe 10.30 or 11am, for an hour or so, then another hour in the afternoon. But as I say, I do a lot of thinking, and I can jump back on the computer any time if I come up with a good idea. I spend a lot of time trying to work out how a particular character can develop, and how I can move the plot along through a difficult patch. I’m always trying to think up ways of ratcheting up the tension.

Who are the authors or you love, and why?

I’ve always loved fiction, but when I got into the crime business I had little experience with the famous crime writers other than Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett. But as time went on I got interested in Elmore Leonard, James Ellroy, James Lee Burke, Patricia Cornwell, Ruth Rendell, James Crumley, Michael Connelly, Michael Dibdin, Robert Crais. There are many more – but I suppose I owe more to contemporary American writers than anyone else. They seemed to be more visceral and stylish; a lot more of the noir qualities and the ability to place a story in a time and place that is absolutely convincing.

What’s the hardest lesson you ever had to learn about writing?

One of the hardest lessons I’ve learnt about writing is that with each novel, you have to start from scratch and invent something worthwhile out of nothing. It can be daunting, especially given that you can’t please everyone. So, with that in mind, you just have to push on and persevere with your own agenda. I’ve been rejected plenty of times early on, and I know how discouraging that can be. But if you believe in yourself enough, you’ll get there with hard work, persistence, and above all, a talent that sets you apart. I think Frederick Forsythe’s The Day of the Jackal was rejected by 27 publishers, so there’s a lesson right there!

9781760080648_8 Hours to Die_cover 2How do you deal with feedback?

Feedback is very important, when it comes from editors or people who are involved in the business and know what they are talking about. You have to listen to feedback, including negative criticism, as no book is perfect. I have always been willing to make changes at the suggestion of an editor, even major ones. Nothing is precious in the book – I’ve cut out whole chapters, completely re-arranged the structure, deleted characters, etc, and it’s all turned out for the better. Uninformed criticism I take no notice of. The advent of the Internet has created a whole universe of online experts, some of them quite feral, so you have to be wary of that.

How have your own experiences shaped your writing?

I studied English Literature at University, was an English teacher for years, so I’m well-grounded as far as that goes. The writers who inspired me initially were Robert Penn Warren and Graham Greene, both of whom have very dark qualities to their writing … I think the idea of crime, with a strong element of romance and escapism that is associated with, came from All The Kings Men, The Power and the Glory, Brighton Rock etc. There is something about mystery, the loner trying to right wrongs, that is bewitching and very seductive. I’d also include Colin Wilson in that – some of his psychological thrillers are absolutely superb, but he’s out of fashion now.

My own life bears no relation to the brutal world of crime fiction that I write about. Friends say, ” How in the hell can you come up with stuff like that?” because really, there’s nothing of me in those stories. It’s all fantasy.

Give me some advice about writing…

The best advice I can give about writing – crime writing – is that first, you have to read a power of books, good and bad. Get familiar with the genre you’re working in. You can’t suddenly become a successful writer in a vacuum. Read voraciously, and don’t start writing a novel until you have a damned good idea, one that will go the distance. Remember: action is character. Cut back on description, which can kill interest. Avoid purple prose. Keep the plot rolling. Try not to be a ‘stylist’ – your own style will evolve in time, if you persist. I copied F. Scott Fitzgerald and Hemingway initially, before realising that was going nowhere. Don’t do what’s been done before if you can help it. When I’m stuck, I often read great authors to get some inspiration. That can work wonders.

What’s your best advice for an author looking to get into the marketplace…

That’s the tough part. So many people are writing novels now, it’s hard to break in. If you can, get an agent. That’s not easy either. Otherwise, make sure your book is as good as you can get it, then send it to numerous publishers simultaneously. Have a short synopsis prepared, and a sample chapter if that’s what the publisher asks for. Don’t take rejection to heart. Everyone’s been rejected. If you’re good enough, you’ll get there in the end with persistence. That can take a long time. Overnight success stories are few and far between. And, as I said earlier, be prepared to make changes.

What’s next for you?

Following 8 Hours to Die, I’m currently working on a crime story about some cold murder cases involving a detective who has his own demons from the past to contend with … he is a compromised character but utterly determined to get the job done. It’s an interesting project, and while I have a few ideas left at the half-way point, I’m not sure how it’s going to end. But then, that’s half the fun. And if it isn’t fun, why do it?