Today I’m excited to welcome Ed Chatterton to the CTG blog. As well as having writing over twenty children’s novels (published under the name Martin Chatterton), Ed is the author of the recently published crime novel, Down Among the Dead Men, the second book in the DCI Frank Keane series, published by Arrow.
And so, to the questions …
Before you starting writing crime fiction you’d already written over twenty highly successful children’s books. What fresh challenge did writing fiction for an adult crime reader audience bring?
‘Highly successful’ might be overstating it: I’d been doing pretty well with some books and less so with others, just like most writers. The books I write for children are largely comedies – surreal farces, often with big themes like ‘death’ or ‘the physical universe’ or ‘nose-picking’. There were, particularly in some of the more recent children’s books, crime elements in there too. Two books – ‘The Brain Finds A Leg’ and ‘The Brain Full of Holes’ – were full blown detective fiction, albeit with a comic twist. So the transition into adult crime fiction was less challenging than it might have been for a debut author. The main change I found was that my characters can swear (and some of them do, a lot), can have sex, and can be more violent. From a technical point of view, adult crime writing requires more precision in terms of plot and, given that my books are complex, requires me to use my rapidly shrinking brain more often. In my children’s books if I got to a difficult plot point I would usually insert a T-rex or a time machine. That’s less easy with gritty adult fiction, as most crime readers tend to notice things like that.
Your recent crime novel, Down Among the Dead Men, is set in Liverpool, Los Angeles and Australia. What was it about these particular settings that inspired to you to pick them?
Liverpool featured because the story is a continuation (in terms of some of the characters) of the first book, A Dark Place To Die. In that first book Frank Keane is one of a number of characters. In Down Among the Dead Men I wanted to focus on Frank and see how far I could push him. Frank’s a Liverpool cop who gets pulled into a case that starts relatively small (an apparent domestic murder-suicide) but quickly gets darker and widens out into something much larger in scale. I picked Los Angeles for two reasons: the first is that I’ve been there a number of times and there were locations I wanted to use. The high desert near Palm Springs and Twentynine Palms is a very evocative landscape (the working title for Down Among the Dead Men was Twentynine Palms). The second is so that I could continue to open out the stories from a single location. I’m not a huge fan of every case in a series being located in exactly the same place. I’d make an exception for George Pelecanos with his Washington-based novels, but single location books too often end up becoming sterile or repetitive. I used to live in the US so I am fond of the place and enjoy writing American characters. The Aussie connection dates back to A Dark Place To Die. Two of the characters from that book, Menno Koopman and Warren Eckhardt, make a re-appearance. Koopman, I think, will become a character who I might develop more as a stand alone. If he lives through Down Among the Dead Men that is . . .
Could you tell us a little about your writing process, do you dive right in, or plan the story out first?
Raymond Chandler said that a good story isn’t devised, it is distilled and I think that’s a pretty good description of my approach. I start with a basic idea, or set of ideas and then I let them go wherever they take me. I often have a rough ‘destination’ in mind with a skeleton narrative and a very strong sense of the kind of story I want to tell, but the fine details are worked out in writing. This usually means that I am constantly redrafting and editing – which is fortunately something I love doing – and I find this approach prevents the books being formulaic. My thinking is that if I don’t know exactly where the story is going then that makes it doubly interesting for the reader. I think you can overplan, just the same way that you can over-write. In my stories, I honestly don’t think the reader can guess what way the story is going.
Your books have been likened to those of Peter James and Ian Rankin. Which crime writers’ novels do you most like to read?
I try to avoid British crime books as I get very jealous and envious and bitter and twisted if they are any good. I’m flattered to be compared to either Peter James and Ian Rankin and, weirdly enough, I met both of them recently although, since I was several continents off being described as sober, they may not look back on the meeting quite as fondly as I do. From what I can remember, they are both lovely blokes but far too successful for my liking. In truth, American crime writers are more my taste and, since they are further away, don’t seem as threatening. I already mentioned Pelecanos who I think is just a little bit special, but I also love Elmore Leonard, Richard Price, Joe Lansdale, Carl Hiassen. One of my favourite books is the one-off, Blackburn by Bradley Denton. I do have a real soft spot for Patricia Highsmith’s stuff too. Some of the Scandi crime is good but I’m a bit sick of the adulation doled out to anyone vaguely Nordic who so much as writes a shopping list at the moment. Of the Scandinavians I like Asa Larsson best. At one point, when I knew my crime series was coming out, I seriously considered adopting a Nordic-sounding pseudonym. In my bleaker 3am moments, I regret not doing so. I reckon I’d have scooped at least three awards by now.
What advice would you give to new writers aspiring to publication?
All the usual gubbins: make sure you have something to say, make sure you keep reading, make sure you keep writing. Don’t think that publication is the ‘win’: publication is just the ticket into the gladiator ring. Maybe this too: don’t listen to too much prescriptive crap about the mechanics of story-telling, plot points, ‘arcs’, use of semi-colons, use of italics, whatever it is. If Stephen King tells stories a certain way that doesn’t mean that you need to do that. Elmore Leonard’s famous ‘ten rules’ of writing, including that ‘don’t start with the weather’ nonsense applies only if you are Elmore Leonard. Despite my healthy man-crush on Leonard, I always thought that was too restrictive. I actually began a kids book with ‘It was a dark and stormy night’ once just to prove a point. And never, ever, do anything Neil Gaiman tells you to unless it relates to hair.
And lastly, what does the rest of 2014 have in store for you?
I’m just about to complete the third in this series which takes place in Liverpool, Berlin and Western Scotland and has the rise of neo-Nazism as a backdrop. I’m continuing to write The Last Slave Ship which is a dual narrative novel about the final slave trading voyage from Liverpool and a contemporary race-hate crime which erupts into riots. This book is part of my PhD which just goes to show one of two things. Either (a) crime writers aren’t as dumb as we look or (b) they’ll let just about anyone do a PhD these days. I’m continuing to illustrate children’s books and will be drawing pictures for a book by Jonathan Emmett. I’ll be keeping my fingers crossed that my‘Mort’ kids series, which has just been bought for development as an animated series by Southern Star, makes it past the pilot stage and into production. Lastly, I’ll be working with a UK TV/film company on bringing Frank Keane to the screen in one way or another. Should keep me busy.
Sounds like it’ll be a hectic year!
A massive thanks to Ed Chatterton for dropping by the blog and allowing us to question him. Watch out for our review of Down Among the Dead Men next week …