Martyn Waites & Cathi Unsworth
interview each other
Cathi Unsworth is a novelist, writer and editor who lives and works in London. She began her career on the legendary music weeklySounds at the age of 19 and has worked as a writer and editor for many other music, film and arts magazines since, including Bizarre, Melody Maker, Mojo, Uncut, Volume and Deadline. Her first novel The Not Knowing was published in 2005, followed the next year with the award-winning short story compendium London Noir, which she edited, and in 2007 with the punk noir novel The Singer. Her new novel Bad Penny Blues was published in 2009 to great critical acclaim. As well as working on her books, Cathi writes paperback crime reviews for The Guardian and regularly takes part in live events, including screen talks at The Barbican and spoken word gigs organised by Tight Lip and The Sohemian Society. All her books are published by and available from Serpent’s Tail. Visit Cathi’s website.
Born and raised in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, Martyn Waites was a professional actor before becoming a writer. He worked in theatre and TV, appearing, for example, in Spender, Inspector Morse, Badger and The Bill. His first novel was Mary’s Prayer (1997), a noirish crime novel featuring Stephen Larkin. The subsequent novels featuring Larkin are Little Triggers (1998), Candleland(2000) and Born Under Punches (2003). Martyn’s Joe Donovan novels are The Mercy Seat (2006), Bone Machine (2007), White Riot (2008) and Speak No Evil (2009). He has also written The White Room (2004). A former Writer in Residence at Huntercombe Young Offenders’ Institution and HMP Chelmsford, he currently runs arts-based workshops for socially excluded teenagers. Visit Martyn’s website.
For Crimeculture’s review of Speak No Evil and Bad Penny Blues, see “The terror of the truth”: the Gothic Noir of Cathi Unsworth and Martyn Waites in our 21st-Century Crime section.
CU: We were brought together by a man we can refer to only as The Shend — because that is his name. He was my pal from the first week I ever worked on Sounds, when he came around flogging a 7-inch by The Sperm Wails, who he was ‘managing’, that had a locked run-off groove of Kenneth Williams saying: “Stop messing about!” and I recognised him from the spectacular sci fi video he made for The Tube, ‘The Bushes Scream While My Daddy Prunes’ by The Very Things. Yes, as well as a singer and a dodgy demi-Don Arden, Shend had become an actor… and it was because of this he met you, in exotic circumstances in Lithuania….
MW: Circumstances which have now passed into legend. We were both there to film The New Adventures of Robin Hood, an American take on the Robin Hood story that was so bad it made Xena Warrior Princess look Shakespearean by comparison. Robin Hood was American (of course), Maid Marion, Little John and Friar Tuck were, respectively, Irish, Mancunian and Welsh but putting on American accents and all the guest stars were British because (as the producer said:) “You got that Classical training that we love.” Which translated as: “You can make any old shit sound good.” Shend and I played wrestlers. Badly. He was the bad guy, I was the good one. He was in black leather I was in brown suede with a long wig that made me look like a pre-surgery Cher. We also had a fantastic East European stunt team who made us look brilliant. Possibly my favourite acting job ever. Totally surreal. Shend and I both said we should have kept diaries because no one would have believed what the experience was like. And certainly the only time the words ‘Guest starring Martyn Waites’ would ever appear on a TV show.
While I was there I was telling anyone who would listen that I was a published author and I loved crime fiction. Shend said he knew you and put us together. Knowing him, he probably wants a finder’s fee for doing that. You interviewed me for Bizarre magazine where you were Deputy Editor at the time, got some photos taken of me hanging off the Westway flyover by a bitter Australian ex-surfer and that was it. The interview was meant to take forty minutes or so but we got on so well we ended up on a pub crawl of Ladbroke Grove. And that was the start of a beautiful friendship. I have a feeling this interview may go the same way.
Speaking of which, here’s the next question: You said when we met that my books (there were only two at the time, Mary’s Prayer and Little Triggers) were really reminiscent of Derek Raymond. That was a very knowledgeable thing for an ex-music journo to say. Where does your love of crime fiction come from? And is there a confluence between music and writing? Especially crime writing?
CU: The fact is, Cookie [Derek Raymond] saved me from what music journalism was about to turn into, when he made the Dora Suarez record with Gallon Drunk in 1993. They were my favourite band and within seconds of reading the novel, I Was Dora Suarez and then meeting Cookie in his ‘office’ in the Coach & Horses, he was my favourite author.
Cookie was a bit like Johnny Rotten – a tall, thin streak of energy who was ever enquiring, ever incandescent with the rotten state of the world, and ever entertaining. He showed me what a crime novel could be, and why it could be the most important form of novel for our times. ‘The Black Novel’ he called it, an urgent enquiry into the shit state of the world and the rotters than run it, with endless compassion for the victims, the forgotten and marginalised whom he wished to give a voice to.
To cut a long story short, though Cookie led me to Ellroy and then across a trail of brilliant American crime fiction, I had yet to hear an echo of his voice in a British writer until I met you. When Shend handed over those books, I spent one of the happiest weekends of my life (and by this you will be able to tell what an unreconstructed Goth I am) lying on my sofa reading, in turn, Mary’s Prayer, He Died With His Eyes Open, Little Triggers and Dora. I was so excited to read a British crime novel that had the intelligence, the atmosphere, the standard of writing and purpose as Cookie.
I think what it is for our generation, what we share with Cookie – in his class rebellion against the world of privilege he turned his back on, defiantly taking the down escalator in the early Sixties when all around him were scrambling up – is that ethic, which we ascribe to punk – question everything, accept nothing, the personal is the political.
So Martyn, how much was Cookie an influence on you and how much else stems from punk rock and also, the great Northern writers of the Sixties and Seventies – e.g. Sillitoe, Barstow, Waterhouse and the great Ted Lewis from your native land?
MW: Cookie was huge. I remember at the time I first read him the late Eighties what a huge impact he had on me. It was like being given a blueprint or a manifesto on what my own writing should aspire to, even though I hadn’t decided to write then. I’d come to him through Raymond Chandler, strangely enough. I was attracted to his first novel, He Died With His Eyes Open, by the quote on the front cover declaring him an English Chandler, only better. That, I decided, was the book for me. Shortly after it came John Williams’ seminal Into The Badlands which pieced together the psychogeography of America at the time through the work of its crime novelists. That did it for me. Immediately I wanted to do what they were doing except in the UK. So I did. Along with everyone else, I think.
As to the other writers you mentioned, most of them I came to retroactively. It wasn’t a progression through them to Cookie and onwards. It happened the other way round. Going backwards there was Cookie, then Hammett then Chandler then Lester Dent, the king of pulp fiction. I still read him now. Brilliant writer.
As for punk – what I loved about it was the same as what I loved about Hammett’s writing for Black Mask. Formulaic but when a great artist is using that formula, exciting as hell. Some people think that the strictures of crime writing – beginning, middle and end, the narrative pact with the reader regarding entertainment, if you promise something you have to deliver, emotional climax, etc – are too rigid. I disagree. Good practitioners can use those restrictions and create something truly unique. That’s what thought crime writing and punk (and new wave and post-punk) had in common. As that often neglected philosopher Noddy Holder once said: ‘If it can’t be said in a three minute pop song it can’t be said at all.’ That is the essence of a good crime novel.
However, about punk itself, I had to be in the closet to an extent. Where I grew up in Birtley just outside Newcastle in the North East was a very small community. It’s turned up in some of my books most unflatteringly as Grimley. It wasn’t so much the village that time forgot, it was the village that used to crouch down underneath the window and pretend it was out whenever time came calling. Horrible place. And most (actually all) of my peer group at school were into rock. Or rather, RAWKK! Led Zep and a bit of Deep Purple, fine. Motorhead, great. And pre-cartoon character Ozzy Sabbath. But Rush? Uriah Heap? Yes? Rush? Jesus. Fucking Rush? They used to write twenty-minute allegorical songs about different sized trees representing Ayn Rand’s hateful theories. And my mates used to go see them live and drag me along. I had to keep my passion for anything progressive (not prog) and non-Neanderthal quiet. Otherwise I would have been denounced as a homosexual and shunned by the tribe. There were already questions being asked about why my hair wasn’t long, uncombed and unwashed and my denim jacket was free from meaningless Jimmy Page symbols embroidered on the back. So if I wanted to listen to the Clash or the Pistols or The Fall or Elvis Costello or even Devo I had to do it in private or incur the wrath of the Hammer of the Gods. It’s funny, but that time in your life is when your self-defining memories are being formed is one you’re supposed to look back on it nostalgically, so received wisdom has it. I don’t. Hated it.
But, as Ronnie Corbett used to say, I digress. As for the grim up North social realists like Sillitoe – they came later. Ted Lewis does cast a large shadow, though. I remember them filming Get Carter. It’s hard to describe just how insular the city was then. But this was a huge event. Michael Caine in Newcastle in the early Seventies? Like royalty had arrived. Like most people I read the book after seeing the film. And like most people was surprised that it wasn’t even set there. I don’t even think it’s his best book. That would beGBH or the hugely underrated Billy Rags. But it’s no surprise he died the way he did. He was like a single voice out in the wilderness then, with the rest of the crime writing community hanging round PD James and Ruth Rendell. Totally out of step with his times. And he was younger than me when he died. I find that both tragic and terrifying. And did you know he was once contracted to write for Doctor Who? Imagine that . . .
But I always had a soft spot for Keith Waterhouse. Used to love to see him in various Soho watering places. Hugely entertaining. When he died a huge part of old Soho died with him. As you know, because we used to go to his launch parties at our club in Soho. (Ooh, club in Soho, get us. Would that it were that posh.) Great bloke. Great writer. Sadly missed.
It’s interesting you touched on Sillitoe, et al, because they’re writers who are noted for creating fiction that examines society from the bottom up. And that’s the way I think crime fiction – at least good crime fiction – is headed. It’s no longer just escapist literature, the puzzle novel of Agatha Christie, the literary equivalent of a crossword with no attempt at characterisation or depth. I think now if you want to write crime fiction with any degree of connection to the society we’re living in you’re going to be writing a novel that examines the society that produced it. Do you agree? And where would you say your work fits in with this?
CU: This is exactly what I want my work to do. The whole purpose of the Black Novel is to look at society through crime, and I think, particularly on my last one Bad Penny Blues, for which I spent two years living in a time tunnel of 1959-65, that I actually achieved my aim. It’s funny how historical distance can give you such a clear perspective and indeed reflect back on the crimes being committed now. The whole idea of psychogeography is quite important to my three books, as they all feature the same locations, rather than characters, in different time periods. And though it looks like I had this idea all along, it was something that happened completely unconsciously. Yet so many connections and weird coincidences occurred while writing Bad Penny that it completely validated the theory to me.
To explain a bit more… With my first novel, The Not Knowing, I did what every first author must have to do, I exorcised myself. Or at least, I presume this is a common experience — I would love to know if you felt the same way about Mary’s Prayer? Anyway, the character of Diana Kemp in that novel lived in the same hovel as I did when I was her age, had the same career, the same look, same social circle, same favourite pub. The hovel was at 36 Arundel Gardens, W11, a very shabby little basement bedsit that was so cold that the windows froze over on the inside before they did on the outside. It was all I could get when I was a music journalist as landlords took to that profession as well as if you’d said you were a full-time smackhead or axe murderer. And my favourite local pub then, and now, is the Earl of Lonsdale on Portobello Road, a Sam Smith’s-run old ginhouse that is the only pub on the entire street that hasn’t succumbed to a post-Notting Hill makeover.
When I started the research for Bad Penny Blues, two things that I found out almost straight away – Joe Meek lived at 20 Arundel Gardens in the late Fifties, and it was at this address that he did the séance in 1959 that predicted the date of Buddy Holly’s death, something that hung over Joe until he took himself out on the same date, February 7, eight years later. And The Lonsdale was Henekeys the in-pub with the RCA art student/Pop Art/angry young writers/proto-hippy beatnik crowd. So Stella, the female lead ofBad Penny Blues, who is an art student at the RCA and lives next door to a young record producer with a taste for Spiritualism, lives in the same road and goes to the same pub as Diana because history dictated that she could, not because I chose it.
I believe you had some psychogeographic dreams and experiences while you were writing the Donovan series didn’t you? Wasn’t it The Mercy Seat where you dreamt a place in Newcastle that you subsequently found out had really existed?
MW: Not The Mercy Seat, Bone Machine. Actually it goes back to The White Room. While I was writing that book, which deals with Newcastle in the Sixties and the hitherto unexplored links between corrupt head of the City Council T Dan Smith and eleven year old child killer Mary Bell, I had a dream. It actually made its way into the novel. Because Dan Smith was trying to dream up a new city, there were dream sections in the novel. And one of them was really, vividly mine. I dreamed there was a huge building, church or cathedral-like, with these enormous pillars made of what looked like melting animal fat, some used as candles. Beyond this there was a white tiled room where animals were being slaughtered. All the people who worked there were dressed in rags with chains on their feet. I immediately wrote this dream down and included it in the novel.
Then a couple of years later, I was writing Bone Machine which is about a serial killer trying to contact the ghosts of Newcastle’s past by leaving his victims in hidden, ancient burial places. During the research for this I found out that in the area of town where my dream had been set, a few centuries ago there had been a church with a prison attached. The inmates worked in a slaughterhouse and the main export there was tallow for candles. I was stunned. There was absolutely no way I could have known this, not even taken the information in subconsciously when I was small. I’m not given to Alice Seebold-like mystical pronouncements but there was something beyond coincidence in that.
I think place is vitally important, both in novels where if you do it right it should be a character in itself, and in where you write and how your surroundings influence you. Here’s another slightly spooky coincidence. As you know, I moved out of London to the country a few years ago. But instead of the usual bucolic, Constableish scenes you’d expect, it looks more like, as you said, where they filmed Blood On Satan’s Claw or Witchfinder General. Someone else thought the same because I just found out that Ted Lewis lived a few minutes up the road from me and wrote Jack’s Return Home there. So clearly there was someone else influenced by his surroundings. Or my surroundings, rather.
It’s also interesting to note that Ted Lewis was writing about the north sitting in the southern countryside. I do exactly the same. There’s almost a sense of writing in exile. I find that the distance helps to recreate the city (in my case Newcastle) in my head more than it would if I were actually there writing it. I’m guessing it’s the opposite with you?
CU: That is amazing about Ted Lewis, Martyn. Now I feel like he must be your guardian angel, watching over you while you take the dog out around Satan’s Reservoir and making sure the vengeful shade of Matthew Hopkins doesn’t get you!
Not all the Ladbroke Groves in my books are places where I actually lived, the punk Seventies in The Singer and the Fifties/Sixties in Bad Penny were evoked through imagination, film, music and literature to recreate a parallel universe to the place I inhabit. Whenever I get stuck I just go out and walk the streets that my characters are walking, willing the walls and the stones to give up their secrets and tell me how it was. I have felt a really strong attachment to the place since I first went to Portobello Road as a teenager in 1984, to buy Sisters of Mercy bootlegs. I felt then that it was a magical place, a world apart from the rest of London – as Colin MacInnes felt about it in Absolute Beginners – and I feel almost umbilically attached to it now. Because I have been there so long, 22 years, I have seen the place change an awful lot, and not for the better… But like our dear Keith Waterhouse said of Soho: “You only have to stand on the corner for a while to see the old place loitering, waiting to get arrested.”
I had many strange experiences writing Bad Penny. I will tell you the weirdest one, as I could fill up the rest of the interview with them all. This would be about halfway through writing the book, about 9.45 on a drizzly autumn morning when I was going to work on the 31 bus. We were headed down Belsize Road towards Camden when I head what sounded like a transistor radio being turned on, complete with crackling and interference, and then a male newscaster’s voice, in that perfect old BBC Received Pronunciation tone saying: “The recent spate of unsolved prostitute murders in West London…” Then there was a noise like someone was turning the dial, trying to get a better reception.
Having heard what sounded like a direct broadcast from the past about the case at the centre of the story I was writing, I quickly turned around to see who had the radio. The voice said: “The pathologist’s report suggests that…” and as I turned, I saw that it wasn’t a radio, it was all coming out of the mouth of a man seated opposite me, the radio announcer’s voice, the white noise and crackles, the whole thing. And as I saw this, he lurched forward in his seat like he’d had an electric shock and all the noises stopped.
My partner Mike was sitting right next to me and saw and heard the whole thing too, so I know it really happened, I didn’t just fall asleep on the bus and dream it. I have asked a few Fortean types about it since and none of them have ever heard of such a phenomena before. The man looked to be, for want of a better phrase, ‘Care in the Community’. I am sure he was suffering from some form of schizophrenia – I had a family member who did and was obsessed with the idea that he could be affected and controlled by radiowaves. But how the man on the bus tapped into the Jack the Stripper case in my head is beyond me. But I suppose that, in a way, it’s a similar experience to your dream – it does seem to go beyond coincidence. Are we more sensitive than we realise? Can we tap into the resonances that others have left when they departed this world in a traumatic way?
And to return to your original question, I have started to write a novel set in the place where I grew up, the Norfolk of 1984. And what has really got to me is not how the place comes into focus from a distance of time and space – but how many false memories I have of it. One building, in particular is really disturbing me as I see it clearly in my head as having a half-timbered Mock Tudor frontage, but when I went on the web to look it up, it had a flint façade! So that is another headfuck – what creates these false memories? Are our dreams and memories all stored in the same, unreliable database?
But yes, coming back to the point – place is incredibly important. It’s also a way of changing the form of the crime novel, as Ellroy showed – if a place can be the main character then you are not limited by having to have the same protagonist each time. This is something I am quite scared of, by the way. But you have managed to write two successful series with a believable central character going through a journey of his own as well as solving a series of crimes… I would like to ask, what is it like doing that? Do you ever fear you will get trapped in an abusive relationship with your alter ego, like Conan Doyle did, or do you always manage to finish the arc of the character before you really want to kill him? And how much are Larkin and Donovan like you?
MW: Oh God, where do I start? Well, I thought when I started to write crime fiction that the majority of the books I loved and admired had a recurring central character. The reader experienced everything through him. He was the filter, the man-camera, the surrogate mouthpiece of the writer. And that’s the way I wanted to go. Stephen Larkin was my first. And, like the poet says, you never forget your first… Like Chandler, I wanted my character to have the surname of a poet. I don’t know why, perhaps it leavened the brutality to come. Or illuminated it in some way. Philip Larkin is one of my favourite poets, plus the mood and tenor of his work suited my books. And he spent a lot of his time in the north. Easy choice. I also wanted Larkin (my Larkin) to be damaged because a well-balanced protagonist was no fun. In hindsight maybe I over did it. Murdered wife and son, heavy drinker, depressive, violent… I just hope I managed to keep him this side of self-pity and sentimentality. There’s nothing I hate more than a noir protagonist who’s all self-pityingly sentimental. I think Larkin came to the end of his natural life (not literally, he could always be brought back if I really wanted to) and I got a bit bored writing about him. I do sometimes wonder what he’s doing now and if he’s happy. But not too much. He’s only pretend.
Joe Donovan I spent a lot of time coming up with. I had to get him to talk to me, tell me about himself, get his voice clear in my head before I could start to write about him. I knew I was going to spend quite a while with him so I wanted to make sure his voice was clear. He’s an ex-investigative reporter. His son has vanished and he’s spent years looking for him. It’s cost him his marriage, the relationship with his daughter and his career. I knew that the over-riding arc of the series was going to be Donovan’s search for both his son and his humanity. I look on each novel as a chapter in a much longer novel. That’s why they often end on cliffhangers.
As to finishing the arc of the character… Donovan is still ongoing. Unfortunately I’ve left the publisher of the series and am trying to place him with another. Nothing concrete as yet (or nothing I can say at this stage) but it’s looking promising. I do want the series to continue, though because his story hasn’t been told yet. And I’m not bored with hearing his voice in my head. I was ready for a break from the series, though, so it’s probably a good thing I’ve gone away from it for a bit. When I come back to him he should be clearer in my head.
As to how much they’re like me… I think Frances Fyfield once said that a series character is an idealised version of the author but five years younger. He’s the one who remembers to say the right thing at the right time, not when you’re on the bus going home. In a lot of respects, that sums up Donovan and me. He also has my taste in music, books, films and has my comic book characters t-shirt collection. Which I know is something so startlingly sartorial that you, being the cool dresser you are, secretly covet and envy. I know you secretly yearn to walk around Ladbroke Grove with the Silver Surfer on your chest…
Having said all that, when I do get sick of him, regardless of how big he is, I’ll kill him off. When I really truly can’t face writing about him any more, he’ll be gone.
So, I know you’ve said that the thought terrifies you, but is there any way, or are there any circumstances that would lead you to write a series? What would it be like? Or rather, what would it not be like?
CU: What I would like to do would be to go to the five years preceding Bad Penny Blues, 1954-59 and write a sort of prequel that would take in a storyline that I wanted to put into BPB but didn’t have the space for. Some of the characters from BPB would have a part in it, one of which was very carefully researched and based on a fascinating real life character – and ended up was reduced to one scene and two lines! I am very interested in the parallels between Simon Cowell and Larry Parnes and their roles in the manufacturing of pop idols, though of course, the thought of going back to Larry’s time stalking the 2i’s Club in Old Compton Street with Lionel Bart is vastly more alluring than Cowell’s horribly bland universe. But Cowell is Larry to the power of a billion and I would like to follow that thread back in time, to show a mirror to the present.
There are other threads to catch from BPB about the connections that were forged in those days between the great and good and the down and dirty, that would enable some to rise to heights of power that would have been unthinkable before the War. I have a great idea for a character who rises and one who crashes, but of course, it would be remiss to explain at this point or get too excited about it. But it would allow me to spend more time in the smoky basements of Soho past, staring into John Deakin photos to try and walk into the frame! Watching The Small World of Sammy Lee over and over. And of course, Martyn, as we both know, Trad Jazz was hot on the scene then too…
Then, in an ideal world, I would go back another five years to 1949-53 and go back to the character of Stanley Coulter in BPB and his time as a young copper working on the heinous Reg Christie case – from which there are still so many unanswered questions and loose ends. Hopefully that would then be adapted for the big screen by the League of Gentlemen chaps, who seem to want to spend their entire time playing Reg Christie, and directed by one of the original League of Gentlemen, Bryan Forbes…
After that, I would go back to the War and the twin cases of the Blitz Witch and the Blackout Strangler. I am not quite sure which characters from BPB would be in that, but there are plenty of them that could be. That’s what makes it exciting for me, not really knowing what I am doing, but going on a journey each time, where the connections seem to make themselves. I fear that magic would dissipate if I was stuck with one person in one time frame. One of the great joys of writing is being able to travel through time and space, don’t you think?
So basically, I would be following the Ellroy route to creating a series linked by location and an evolving set of characters, based on things that really did happen, but in a parallel universe of my own making. And going backwards in time rather than forwards!
Martyn, I know that so far you and I would both consider The White Room to be your masterpiece –it connects so deeply with your past and the figures who haunt Newcastle and still impact upon the present. Born Under Punches similarly reflects a legacy, the curse placed upon our nation by the witch Thatcher in 1984, which has created precisely all the shite we are in today. In an ideal world – which we are both aware this isn’t – wouldn’t you like to write more books like this?
MW: Absolutely definitely. I loved writing Born Under Punches. The White Room, less so. Although that was an incredibly dark book to write and I had to undergo Mary Bell’s journey myself. It wasn’t a happy time in my life when I was working on that but I had to be true and honest to what I was doing. If I’m to be remembered for anything, he said with no attempt at modesty, then it’ll be those two books. Unfortunately I can’t see that happening in my lifetime but I hope my kids will benefit from it.
But yes, as to writing more like that, I’d love to. The Secret Histories, as Ray Banks called them. There’s a third one all set to go in my head. It’s set in 1976/7 and 1995 and it’s based on a true story. The local police in Gateshead in the North East beat a man to death. It happened right beside my house. His sister was a teacher at my school who led calls for an inquiry. Of course, there was a massive cover up and the police involved all reassigned somewhere else. It was never truly resolved and it’s something else that’s haunted me over the years. The novel as it stands in my head looks, through this one incident, at how the groundwork was laid to allow a monster like Thatcher to take over our country and how dissenting voices were brutally dealt with. It’s very dark. Very fucking noir. All I need is time to do it and a publisher sympathetic enough to take it on and I’m away.
Those two books, more than any others I’ve written, cut to the heart of what I passionately believe crime fiction should be or should aspire to. It’s at its best when it’s pulling together all the occult strands and hidden histories, the things polite society would prefer were lost forever. It bellows the secret bloodied opera rather than lilts along to the trite little manufactured pop song that clogs up the airwaves. It shows the dark, beating heart of our society rather than the brittle, botoxed and buffed outer shell. It shows the way life really is.
Yes, I’m a pretentious wanker. But yes, I believe it.
Anyway. You mentioned trad jazz back there. Now we’ve had our discussions before about the jazz detectives – how when some moody, noirish private eye or maverick cop comes back to his lonely apartment, cracks open the bottle and puts on some jazz, it’s always the soulful, cool, Miles Davies stuff and never the Kenny Ball/Acker Bilk ‘When The Saints Go Marching In’ variety – but you upped the game by naming your last novel Bad Penny Blues after a tune by the great and much missed Humphrey Lyttleton. I always call my books after song titles (some more obscure than others) because I think it gives them added resonance and another layer of meaning to the work. How important are titles to you in establishing the mood and feel of a novel? Do they come first or afterwards? And probably my favourite (certainly noir) novel title of all time is Patrick Hamilton’s Hangover Square. What’s yours?
CU: What you said about real crime fiction is what I passionately believe to be true – what Cookie taught me about the Black Novel. To quote him: “Black writers are prepared to strip off the temptation to hide from the terror of the truth. Such people are few; they have understood that it is not enough to describe an act of wanton brutality, that the challenge lies in the analysis of real-life horror, and that once they get down to it, the truth is going to cost them dear. There is no such thing as a cut-price truth and those writers who shrink from its real price should keep right away from the black novel.”
I know how you felt when you wrote The White Room as I experienced that during the two years of writing Bad Penny, what Cookie experienced writing I Was Dora Suarez – and I also know why you have to do it. I dearly hope you will find a publisher for the third part of your Newcastle Secret Histories. I am well aware and extremely grateful that I have Cookie’s best friend as my editor, John Williams, who, as you said, provided us all with a blueprint for our writing in Into The Badlands, and Pete Ayrton of Serpent’s Tail, who have done more for Cookie’s legacy than any of the major labels he was on, as my publisher. They let me take the risks that frankly, I doubt any other publisher would sanction. Because they believe in the same things that we do.
Hangover Square – and indeed, many others of Patrick Hamilton’s books have brilliant titles. I also loveTwenty Thousand Streets Under The Sky and The Slaves of Solitude. Cookie came up with many corkers –The Crust on its Uppers and Private Parts in a Public Place are pretty hard to beat. Not to mention Nelson Algren – Never Come Morning has to be one of the most bittersweet titles of all time, The Man With The Golden Arm and A Walk on the Wild Side the coolest.
Nelson forms one of my key music links of inspiration. I first heard of him when Barry Adamson did his monumental cover of Elmer Bernstien’s theme for the Otto Preminger film of The Man With The Golden Arm, which, with real noir irony, just about did for Nelson’s career, Preminger was such a cunt to him. It was on Barry’s first solo album, which for me is a black novel in itself, Moss Side Story, that came out in 1989. I interviewed him a few times and got to be friends with him, ended up working for him for a year or so, and in that time, Barry also instilled in me how a noir soundtrack works. He taught me about all the greats, such as Bernstien’s scores for not only Golden Arm but The Sweet Smell of Success, John Barry’s Bonds, Bernard Herrmann’s Vertigo and Quincy Jones’ In Cold Blood, which remains pretty unsurpassable, that music is so brilliant it even distracts me from what is also one of the greatest noir movies of all time.
Barry had his revelation as a child, watching the underwater sequence in Thunderball, when he realised that the music became the third dimension of the film. I have always tried to use music in this way in my books, the same as you do. And when I first started writing the first chapter of The Not Knowing, Moss Side Story was the album I came back to. The first track, called ‘On The Other Side of Relaxation’ is just about the scariest piece of music I possess, and it has all these sound effects, of someone walking down a street. TNK opens with the killer walking down York Way, a ghostly interzone between King’s Cross and Camden, which until very recently was the scariest road I knew. And I had walked down it many times at night as I had two friends who lived on the Camden end – every time I thought I was in a David Lynch movie. Anyway, after Barry had read the book, and thankfully liked it, I told him that the opening chapter was scored to this track and he told me that the footsteps were a recording he made of himself… walking down York Way. He shared my opinion of that thoroughfare. However, now that road has been made over and The Guardiansits at the end of it, alongside trendy bars and a nice little gig venue called The Cross Kings. I never thought they could posh up York Way, but they have done!
I think the way we approach a novel is similar to how the Pop Artists did their collages – taking imagery from the jukebox and the silver screen, the newsreel and folk and occult history. And I also like to ‘recommend’ films, music, other writers through the novels – I guess the journalist part of me wants to keep on doing that. Although I would never describe myself as a critic – I prefer ‘enthusiast’ as I think if you have a platform it should be used to make people aware of the good stuff, not sniff down your nose trying to make a name for yourself by being a bitch about things you don’t like. You have always been like that, Martyn, very encouraging to new writers, you were to me when I started to make the transition into books. You have spent a lot of time teaching, and I think we would both agree that a good education is the one thing that gives everyone hope – which is why the last 30 years of Government have done their best to destroy it. Do you think there is a part of you that will always have this urge to be a kind of teacher/mentor?
MW: Well I think I’m kind of a reluctant mentor in a way. I’m not a teacher as such, not really. I’m just a writer who can teach. Or, like you say, pass on enthusiasm. As a reader, I love to find a new writer, someone with a unique, compelling voice that can tell stories that illuminate the human condition using words in an exciting way. And when I’ve come across writers like that while I’ve been teaching I get really excited. Then I just want to help them on, see them published so I can read their books. Maybe I’m just selfish that way. But I couldn’t think of myself as a mentor. I can pass stuff on that I’ve learned while writing eleven novels but I’m not an endless font of knowledge. When I sit down to write a new novel and stare at the blank screen I’m back to the beginning. I know nothing. I have to re-learn what I learned every single time. But I still get asked to look at people’s work and mentor them. I have to turn most things down otherwise I’d never get of my own work done. But I do love the process. I love working with a talented new writer and seeing something special emerge. It’s a great feeling to be part of that.
But Cathi, your first novel was brilliant. It would have got published whether I’d been around or not. And that’s the thing. I tend to think that if writers are good enough, talented enough and tenacious enough, they’re going to find a way in no matter what.
I also think you’re right about the Pop Art collage approach. And I think it’s something that’s more prevalent in crime fiction rather than (that hateful phrase) mainstream literary fiction. Because crime fiction is, by necessity, a popular medium. A genre of immediate connection. It creates a narrative bargain with a reader more so than any other kind of fiction: there’s a mystery and it will be solved. Or if it won’t be solved, it will happen in such a way as to be deliberate. As Jim Thompson said: ‘There is only one plot: things are not as they seem.’ And that’s the essence of crime fiction.
But within that world you can do anything you want. Music, cinema, literature… all kinds of culture can be referenced. It creates the world the novel is set in. It defines it, even celebrates it, in a way. When that’s done in other kinds of literature it looks heavy handed and obvious. In crime fiction it’s exciting and vital.
And I’m glad you mentioned Nelson. For such a small guy he casts a big shadow over both of us.
Well, he said, in a voice like Cleavon Little as Super Soul in Vanishing Point, leaning into the late night microphone, I guess it’s nearing time for us to wrap up. It’s so good to be given the opportunity to rattle on so much. So one final question: Where will the pair of us be in ten years time? Still (he said modestly) the Noel Cowerd and Dorothy Parker of Brit Noir or Alan Bennett and Thora Hird? What d’you think?
CU: Laughs (like Muttley, or a drain). The great thing about us, Mart, is that we could be both — and maybe we are! One thing is for sure, we will both be writing noir. We can’t stop it, it is a sickness that has afflicted us and now we are addicts, slaves to the crave. I think it might be sweeter to end up eating bath buns in Betty’s Tea Rooms while gossiping about James Ellroy’s angina than spending our last dimes bursting our livers on Whiskey Sours to toast Jim Thompson in the Algonquin Hotel. But I know which is the most noir ending…
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