Thursday, 20 September 2012

A Dark Place to Die with Ed Chatterton

Today's guest blog is an interview of author Ed Chatterton by Nick Quantrill.  

Ed Chatterton has worked at various points as an illustrator, written for children and set up his own design company. Nick Quantrill talks to Ed about his first adult novel, “A Dark Place To Die”, a slice of ‘Brit Grit’ set in Liverpool and Australia.

NQ – Congratulation on a great crime debut, Ed. In your own words, what’s “A Dark Place To Die” all about?

EC – Thanks for the compliment, Nick. ‘A Dark Place To Die’ focuses on Menno Koopman, an ex-Liverpool cop with Dutch ancestry and freshly-retired to Australia, who is sucked back into his old world when a burnt body is discovered amongst Antony Gormley’s iron men sculptures on a Liverpool beach. The victim turns out to be connected on a personal level with Koopman and he returns to his home city to conduct his own investigation. The killing on the beach is the start of a story about a large scale drug deal gone wrong between Liverpool and an organised gang operating out of Australia’s Gold Coast. The violence escalates in unexpected and savage ways as Koopman, and his protege, DI Frank Keane, dig deeper into the case.

NQ – Although it’s your first crime novel, it’s certainly not your first appearance in print, is it?

EC – No, I have been writing children’s fiction for almost twenty years. Mostly that’s been for upper primary levels with a few YA novels in there too. ‘A Dark Place To Die’ is actually my 32nd book as a writer. There have been a couple of forays into crime fiction before within the world of children’s books. Two other YA novels: ‘The Brain Finds A Leg’ (Little Hare) and ‘Michigan Moorcroft RIP’ (Scholastic), although surreally comedic, were essentially crime books. I started out as an illustrator - which is something I still do - and I have probably illustrated around 140 books in total.

NQ – Why did you want to write a crime novel? Have you always been a big reader of the genre?

EC - I found that I was becoming slightly frustrated operating within the boundaries of children’s fiction. Don’t get me wrong: I’ll continue to write for children if there’s a demand, but I wanted to write about subjects that interested me (primarily violence, sex and death!) without being constrained by the age of the reader. There was also the aspect of the sophistication of the language. Although I’ve always written ‘up’ in my children’s fiction, there are concepts and language that you can only use when writing for adults. I was prodded into action by meeting another children’s writer, Phillip Gwynne, at an event. His first crime novel (‘The Build Up’) had just been published and I was incredibly envious; an underrated emotion I always think. Prompted by envy, I set about writing what turned out to be ‘A Dark Place To Die’ which I had been kicking around since 2002 when I was living in the US.

I have always been a big crime reader; from Conan Doyle and Agatha Christie as a child through to my current tastes which lean towards Elmore Leonard, George Pelecanos and Patricia Highsmith. I believe that the very best writers are working in crime fiction. Almost every feted writer I read appears flabby and self-indulgent when placed next to Leonard or Pelecanos. That doesn’t mean there aren’t terrible crime writers: there are, far too many, but if there’s a better book by a living writer than ‘Get Shorty’ then I’d like to see it. I think also that the way Pelecanos weaves his home town of Washington DC into his work, without it ever becoming claustrophobic or cloying, is masterful.

NQ – Turning back to “A Dark Place To Die”, the split location between Liverpool and Australia is very intriguing and one of the novel’s major strengths. Did the character of Menno Koopman, a Liverpudlian now settled in Australia draw heavily on your own background?

EC – Yes, probably it did although there are a number of key differences. I was at the Brisbane Writers Festival a few weeks ago appearing with the Swedish crime writer, Asa Larsson, and she made the comment that it is often in the first novel that a writer uses the most personal stuff. I agree to an extent but I think because this is not my first fiction (by a long shot) there is perhaps less than with most ‘new’ writers. I picked the name Menno Koopman from a Dutch guy I play football with as I wanted him to have a less than typical Liverpool background. I didn’t want the book(s) to be too ‘scouse’ in flavour as I think that being too much in love with your setting can be a problem if you want readers from elsewhere. The reason for the settings is the old adage of ‘write what you know’. That sentiment isn’t something I completely agree with but it helped me in this case. The contrast between the apparent paradise of Australia and the grit of Liverpool was appealing although I won’t be revisiting the Australian setting in the sequel.

NQ – And in relation to Liverpool as a setting, it seems to be one of the great British cities which is very much underrepresented in crime writing. What do you think makes it a place worth exploring?

EC - I’m an emigrant which I feel gives me a more objective view of the place and one of the things I wanted to do was not to be too ‘local’. Liverpool is a big city with a massive global history. I don’t think it thinks of itself as English and I have tried where possible to reflect that. Its history as a port - a spectacularly bloody one when you think about the emergence of the place through the slave trade - makes it a great starting point for stories which begin ‘small’ and expand. I find that the city seems to have more in common with places like New York, Boston, Dublin, Hamburg and Glasgow than other English cities, largely because of its one time importance as a port, but also because of a long-standing multi-cultural mix.

The crime rates in Liverpool are no worse than elsewhere but there is a streak of almost piratical entrepreneurship at work in the criminal psyche which makes it interesting as a writer. There’s a small reference I make in the book about the Liver Bird being an appropriate symbol for Liverpool due to it being based on a poorly-copied drawing of an eagle. The result was a new creature. There’s something very Liverpool about that.

NQ – One of the most striking things to me is that although “A Dark Place To Die” is billed as a police procedural, we don’t learn an awful lot about DI Keane and DS Harris away from their work. It’s maybe a little unusual. Was that a deliberate decision?

EC – Yes, it was. As a fan of George Pelecanos I wanted to have a series that while utilising characters who re-occur in book to book, the size of the roles they play in each book are not predetermined. So, for example, while ‘A Dark Place To Die’ has at its centre the character of Menno Koopman, the sequel shifts emphasis to Frank Keane and, to a lesser extent, Emily Harris. The third book will probably move Emily Harris to the forefront. I like this approach in the books I read so I’m hoping it will appeal to my readers. The ‘police procedural’ is a little bit of a misnomer. I deliberately didn’t get the manuscript read by anyone connected to the police force although I do have several good contacts. This was because I don’t want to get bogged down in the endless detail of bureaucracy. From a narrative point of view the ‘correct’ procedure is often the dullest. I tried to be as accurate as I could - just so long as it didn’t impede the narrative or make the characters less believable. Keane and Harris’s lack of background came from knowing a number of coppers who like to keep things very close to the chest. Koopman, being retired and having a very unusual home life, is fair game. The character of Keane will emerge more slowly; just like any relationship with a real-life copper. They don’t give too much personal information away.

NQ – On the other hand, many of the peripheral characters are so vivid and rich, maybe they have the potential to reappear in future work. I’m thinking about Gittings, the washed-up alcoholic former Merseyside police officer and Warren Eckhardt who handles the Australian side of the investigation. Again, was that deliberate or just an example of those happy accidents which occur when you’re writing?

EC – I love peripheral characters and Eckhardt is one of my favourites. It’s easy to write these kind of characters but I didn’t want to have anyone like that at the forefront. The reason is one of believability; I’m a bit sick of reading cop novels in which the main character is peppered with flaws and psychological ticks. I think you can get away with that in the more minor characters. Warren Eckhardt reappears in book two in the series but I’m afraid Gittings is no more.

NQ – The novel has been out for a while now in Australia. What kind of reception has it had?

EC – It’s had a really good reception. It was Random House Book of the Month in August and the feedback from reviewers and readers has been uniformly positive. It has also been optioned by a movie company which is pretty exciting.  One of the unexpected things has been that over here I am now seen as representing the really dark, gritty, grungy end of the crime spectrum. I appeared on a recent festival panel called ‘I Like It Confronting’ in which I was there as the representative of hard-nosed, edgy fiction.  I’m in a schizophrenic place right now with the book coming out in the UK. My feeling is that when books two and three come out I will be seen as a British crime writer, not an Australian (at festivals many people assume I’m visiting Australia).

NQ – And what can we expect next? Will the next novel be set solely in Liverpool?

EC - I have just completed the first draft of the second book. I wish I could give you the title but I’m still arm-wrestling with Random House about what it will be called.  My suggestions: ‘In The Belly Of The Beast’ and ‘From The Cradle To The Grave’ had a lukewarm reception . . . but we’ll come to a gentlemanly agreement soon.  What I can tell you is that the setting is Liverpool and Los Angeles and centres around the movie business (Liverpool is, after London, the most used film location in the UK). Australia doesn’t get a look in although Koopman and Eckhardt do figure. This story begins with a murder-suicide in a leafy middle-class suburb (it’s actually set in my old next-door neighbour’s house). Keane and Harris soon discover that the apparently simple case has wider implications. Without giving too much away I can say that the Liverpool end of things focuses on a movie being made in the city which has as its subject the Joseph Williamson Tunnels. These tunnels (which are real) were built by an eccentric Victorian for no apparent reason. They run for hundreds of metres under the city and range in size from narrow crawl spaces to huge arched caverns. The labyrinthine setting echoes the theme of the novel which is (cue drum roll) based on the legend of Theseus and the Minotaur. As with ‘A Dark Place To Die’, there is blood, there is sex and there is realism as the narrative unfolds in an unexpected but believable way. From dead dentists to global conspiracies in 500 pages.

A Dark Place to Die by Ed Chatterton is published 27th September (Arrow)

More information about Ed and his writing can be found on his website.


Paul D Brazill said...

Sounds like a good un.

mcshane said...

Very good interview,its got me thinging more about this book i must now read it