In the third of a series of conversations, author William Ryan talks to author D E Meredith
D E Meredith is the author of Devoured and The Devil’s Ribbon, set in Victorian London and featuring pioneering forensic investigators Professor Adolphus Hatton and his assistant Albert Roumande. Meredith has travelled far and wide to some of the remotest places on earth, which has fuelled her imagination and continuing lust for travel. After reading English at Cambridge University, she became a campaigner for the World Wildlife Fund, and spent ten years working for the environment movement. She has flown over the Arctic in a bi-plane; skinny dipped in Siberia, hung out with Inuit and Evenki tribes people and dodged the Russian mafia in downtown Vladivostok. Meredith also became Head of Press and Spokesperson for the British Red Cross, spending six years travelling through war zones and witnessing humanitarian crises. The experience strongly influenced her crime writing, with its themes of injustice and inequality. She currently lives on the outskirts of London with her husband and two teenage sons. When not writing she runs, bakes cakes and does yoga to relax. For more information, visit her website www.demeredith.com
William Ryan is the Irish author of The Holy Thief, The Bloody Meadow and The Twelfth Department (to be published in May); novels set in 1930s Moscow and featuring Captain Alexei Korolev. His novels have been translated into fourteen languages and shortlisted for The Theakstons’ Crime Novel of the Year, The CWA Specsavers Crime Thriller Awards New Blood Dagger and the Kerry Group Irish Fiction Award. He lives in London with his wife and son.
WR: Your Hatton and Roumande novels are set in a very vivid Victorian London, full of sights and smells and atmosphere. I’m always curious as to the methods, other writers use to go about reconstructing a particular time and place...
DM: A journalist called Henry Mayhew provides the Tardis for most nineteenth century-ists and he certainly helped me immerse myself in the sights, sounds and smells of mid Victorian London. He was a journalist who wrote a series of newspaper articles about the rookeries - or slums - during the 1850s. He hung out on the streets and interviewed mud larks, toshers, muck shifters and the costers of London. He chatted to the flower girls, dressmakers and chimney sweeps who struggled to survive what were dangerous and turbulent times. Life was incredibly tough. Londoners had to be tough too, to survive - just like the Soviet peasants in Korolev’s world. In addition to Mayhew, I’ve read numerous histories of Victorian London. Professor Jerry White’s my favourite and I dip into his work regularly. As an ex-English Grad, I’ve read pretty much all of Dickens, and nobody does swirling fog, murky alleyways or the dangerous, turbulent waters of the Thames quite like him. I also spent a lot of time walking around Smithfield and other bits of London where my books are set. Then, like most writers, I just close my eyes and imagine.
One of the things I find really impressive about your books is the overwhelming sense of paranoia you create especially around your main character, Korolev. Russia in the 1930s feels incredibly real to me as I read your work. Did you deliberately try and instil your sense of place via creating a feeling from the off or is this something that gradually created itself through the process of writing your books?
WR: I’m not sure I worked too hard on atmosphere per se – I think it just came along with the research and understanding the circumstances Korolev finds himself in. Like you I read social history and contemporary accounts - whether fiction or non-fiction - and I look at photographs a lot. As for how it all comes together, I think that there’s a breakthrough moment in a novel when you begin to get a good feel for the time and place and your research, to a certain extent, becomes less visible.
When I am writing the Korolev novels, I always try to aim it at someone who lived in the Soviet Union during the 1930s - so I try not to explain anything this imagined reader would know as a matter of course. Of course paranoia would be something this imaginary reader would expect – the late 30s wasn’t called the Great Terror because people were worried about the weather – but I try not to dwell on it too much, just have it in the background even if always present. When I do have to explain things, I try to slip my explanations in quietly, so that they don’t weigh too heavily on the flow of the story. Otherwise, I hope that most readers are comfortable with not being entirely familiar with the period – I tend to think that’s part of the attraction for them. Certainly when I read Dostoyevsky, for example, I don’t expect to understand every little thing - although it’s also interesting how little research-type information there is in novels that are written for a contemporary audience. They don’t have to describe streets, people’s clothing and so on – because their original readers knew all that already.
That having been said, one of the really interesting things about research is how it can change plots – I often come across something I like and then work it into the novel. The football game in The Holy Thief came in for that reason and likewise the scene set in the Odessa catacombs that features in The Bloody Meadow appeared after I’d crawled around them for longer than I’d ideally have preferred – generous tots of vodka notwithstanding. I wonder if that’s the same for you - with both The Devil’s Ribbon and Devoured I felt you took a bit of a mischievous delight in bringing certain things to the fore.
DM: Ha, ha. Yes. I think a classic example of that is Inspector Grey’s delight in chewing opium bonbons or swigging pints of laudanum at every opportunity. I read a huge amount about drug addiction but then ended up with something camp and ridiculous, rather than mournful and sad, because it fitted with the character. I also wanted to lighten up Hatton in the second book because he is a bit of a prig so it was great to see him get “shit faced” or as the Victorians say, “absolutely ran tanned” in a French restaurant. I laughed out loud when I wrote that scene which is always a good sign (I hope!).
WR: I suspected you were fond of Inspector Grey - he is dissolute and corrupt but definitely entertaining. I also liked his Italian assistant Tescalini who seems to have his own very dark presence. Do you look for contrasts when you come up with characters?
DM: Yes, I do think about the balance between Hatton and Roumande a great deal. My novels are written in style indirect libre so we do shift between different characters’ perspectives. Indeed, in Devoured it switches between two different narratives – one in London and another via a series of letters written two years earlier in Borneo. However, in The Devil’s Ribbon I built up Roumande’s character because readers wanted more of him and I’m glad I did because he’s such fun to write. It is very tricky to get the balance right however, when you have “a couple”, and whilst Hatton will always be the main protagonist, Roumande can’t be left in his wake as a sort of “Lewis” to “Inspector Morse”. They solve the crimes together and are pretty much equal partners in the morgue. I am keen we spend a great deal more time with Roumande in future books, learn more about his family, his background and some of his hidden skills which haven’t really been explored yet – he’s an excellent shot, for example.
With Korolev, the narrative for your first two books is (more or less) seen totally from his perspective. This makes the protagonist very empathetic. Did you deliberately decide to do this? Because initially I was drawn to a multi-perspective approach although I pared that back in later re-writes. In addition, I wondered if we will also see more of his rather sassy new sidekick, Silvka, who we meet in The Bloody Meadow in future books? Is that your intention?
WR: I write pretty much solely from Korolev’s point of view and, while that can be limiting, it does, as you say, allow readers to get very close to him as a protagonist. I did toy with the idea of using multiple points of view in The Twelfth Department, the new Korolev novel, in which his sassy sidekick Slivka does indeed reappear - but I wimped out. Maintaining a single camera angle is the easiest way to write a novel and once you’ve started that way with a series, it’s difficult to change. Being stuck inside one person’s head can be a limitation but then I just have to be a bit more creative - and that’s a good thing.
For example, I really work on dialogue and visual imagery to give the other characters depth – given I can’t tell the reader what they’re really thinking because I’m stuck inside Korolev’s point of view. As it happens, my wife likes to know exactly what a character looks like - and I’ve come to realise that not describing characters is missing a trick. Sometimes, because it’s a thirties novel, I go a little over the top with the good guy/bad guy imagery but then I try and subvert that - and twist things back to wrong foot the reader. It actually helps that Russian names can all sound the same to non-Russian readers - it means I have to make the characters individually distinctive. I know you use multiple characters to tell the story - but curiously, I don’t recall Roumande’s point of view being used very much. Once or twice in Devoured, I think. Is that something you’re going to try more in the future?
DM: There will be more Roumande but it’s a balancing act. Writing is a bit like experimental cooking. You put things in, have a taste and think “Hmmmm too salty” or you hold things back and then think “Damn. I should have put more tarragon in this”. But you don’t know what’s going to work unless you try it. So I’m going to give Roumande more space as I move from book to book and see how it goes.
I think the technique you chose underlines Korolev’s sense of isolation. If you veered off into a multi-perspective approach, it would perhaps, undermine the intensity of the world you’ve created. Trying new things is tempting but it doesn’t always work for a series although, at the same time, it’s vital for me to keep challenging myself, either by trying new structures or picking difficult themes. I spent quite a bit of time writing my current book entirely from Roumande’s perspective just to see what would happen. In the end, I decided not to go down that route but it wasn’t wasted time. Writing is a constant learning process.
On the issue of description, I love the filmic quality of your characters. There’s a lot of post-modernist stuff about “letting the reader do the work” and not describing the physical qualities of a character in any depth but it only works sometimes. You have to be a writer of rare talent to pull it off. David Peace’s Red Riding Trilogy is a great example of this, being all about the language, pushing the genre to its absolute limit. The characters are secondary to the terrible beauty of his prose. Nevertheless, as a writer, I occupy a far more traditional detective landscape and as such, description of character and place is key. And more to the point, descriptive prose is fantastic fun to write. It puts a smile on my face whenever I do it. I know it’s considered a “no, no” by some but I can’t resist writing about weather. In fact, one day, I am going to write a book entirely about the weather (I have it plotted out already set in 1899 - the year of a great storm). For me, weather and Nature has its own dramatic narrative, its own “voice” and it will always feature heavily in my books so bah sucks to all the naysayers who say “Rule 1 – don’t open a paragraph with a description of the weather”. Who says and why the devil not?
WR: Rules are almost always an individual’s personal preference at a particular moment in time. I don’t mind if Elmore Leonard chooses to carry every piece of dialogue with “said”, because it works for his style of writing - but he’s wrong when he says it’s an invisible word. Only using “said” often sounds clunky – to my ear anyway – particularly because so many crime writers follow Elmore Leonard’s rules these days (and they follow them a lot more closely than he does, I’ve noticed). It’s like Hemingway - a great writer but I can barely read him now because of endless bad imitations of his very individual style. If I had my way, there’d be an international moratorium on bad Hemingway imitations. I’d also insist on occasional use of the much-maligned adverb as well – another victim of writer’s rules.
Anyway – he says, counting to ten - when it comes down to it, every writer has to work out their own style - and if that involves promiscuous use of adverbs and vast batteries of adjectives, then fine. Adverbs and adjectives were invented for a purpose and it makes sense to use every tool in the box. As for weather – I’ve opened two novels with a description of weather and I’ve no doubt I’ll do it again. I come from a country that’s obsessed with weather – well, mainly with rain – so for me not to look up at the sky and say, “ah, more rain coming, I see” would be odd.
Probably wrongly, I think there’s nothing better than weather for conveying atmosphere, in my opinion at least - but I’m not going to go round telling everyone else they have to think that. Well, I might suggest it - but anyone sensible would ignore me. And at the end of the day, that’s what works for me and what I feel comfortable with. And if I’m enjoying myself and not worrying about my style too much – that’s probably good for the book and the reader. I very strongly believe when a reader opens a book there’s a conversation between the writer and the reader - with the writer doing most of the talking, of course. If that’s right, then the reader is more likely to enjoy the conversation if they feel the writer is enjoying writing the story as much as they’re enjoying reading it.
DM: Yes, I agree. It’s horses for courses and you’ve put your finger on the button in terms of why I write and what I write about. It’s all about an emotional connection at some sort of level with the reader. I want to amuse them, shock them and convey something I feel very strongly about. I’ll admit I cried great gulping tears (dear oh dear) when I wrote one of the scenes in The Devil’s Ribbon. It involves a bomb blast and I based it on something I had experienced in real life. It was something I could never talk about because it was too personal but as I wrote it, I felt I was finally letting go of something. Passing my experience to another person to think about if you like – maybe even sharing the burden. But now I’m getting into the minefield territory of “writing as therapy” and I’m not a fan of that. I went down that route with a book I haven’t yet finished. It turned out to be the opposite to therapy and I couldn’t get control of the narrative. However, I do tap into my own feelings, memories, and experiences for certain bits of my work - what writer doesn’t? But ultimately, I am creating an imaginary world, Hatton’s world, which I hope will delight and amuse. He is very much a man of the mid-Victorian period. I haven’t overlaid him with my own desires and angst. Well, perhaps just a little. On the issue of readers, nothing gives me a bigger buzz then when people get in touch and ask me questions about my lead characters. They want to know more about them, what the future holds for Hatton and Roumande, their family, their love lives and so on. I spend my life with Hatton and Roumande, they are always with me, and so it’s such a kick to know the stories have made a connection with others. It’s such an isolating profession - writers work alone; writing requires complete withdrawal. It requires huge amounts of time digging deeper and deeper into the murky, bizarre world of your own imagination. It’s great to know I’ve managed to take people on that journey with me and more importantly, that they want to come back for more.
WR: I didn’t know you’d experienced a bomb blast - I had a similar conversation to this with MJ McGrath a while back and she mentioned that she’d witnessed a man being attacked with an axe. She felt it had very much influenced her decision to write crime fiction - do you think maybe it’s the same for you?
DM: Perhaps. In my head, rather more prosaically, I always thought if I ever wrote anything it would be a whodunit because I devoured Agatha Christie and PD James when I was young. There was nothing else to do in the suburbs in the 70s except read and ride my bike. I used go for miles all over the place with a notebook and a pair of binoculars and pretend I was a detective, spying on (entirely innocent) people I considered to be “suspicious” I used to long for a dead body to turn up, so I could solve the case. It’s amazing I didn’t go into the police force. What a nerdy kid! Nowadays, I love a good detective yarn on the telly - Midsummer Murders to The Killing you name it and I’ve watched it. As far as my old job is concerned, yes, I witnessed the extremes of life and death when I worked for the Red Cross but I am not sure it led to me writing about crime as a genre, per se. But the injustice of things I saw and the terrible, unspeakable things people do to each other, I am sure has fed my imagination. Little shocks me. But it was the agony of young war victims and the terrible anguish of the parents, which had the biggest impact on me. I travelled to many places where there were few drugs, shells reigning down and so on and saw medical work literally at the front line. After six years with the Red Cross, I felt sad, angry but also weary about the world, corruption, power and the evil in men’s hearts. I certainly explore some of those issues in my books and at the same time, I have a huge, romantic admiration for surgeons and doctors who work in difficult circumstances. Nobody works in harder or in more arduous situations than the ICRC and MSF in my view. Maybe I’ve transferred some of that stuff I saw into the world of Hatton and Roumande. The books are definitely on the bleak side in parts. I look at political themes and revenge themes a great deal - it’s core to what I’m inspired to write about. Currently, I’m reading the diaries of a war reporter who worked in The Crimea and what strikes me from his reports, which feel so modern, is that war never changes. Famine - which I look at in The Devil’s Ribbon - has always been a weapon of war. Violent death never changes. There is nothing good to say about it in itself. What’s interesting is the personalities which emerge from that experience. And their altered state of mind.
WR: I find it fascinating that you’ve chosen to set your novels in Victorian London and yet your inspiration comes from your personal experiences with the Red Cross, the World Wildlife Fund and the like. A lot of writers would have used that experience to something more contemporary. Is it perhaps that writing historical fiction gives you a bit of distance on the themes you want to address - or is it something else entirely?
DM: Exploring difficult themes within the framework of historical fiction certainly gives me some distance. I based a scene in The Devil’s Ribbon on a shell attack in Kabul where I saw three people decapitated and where I was only maybe a metre or two from where an RPG landed. I transferred that image and those feelings of shock and despair into Hatton’s mind and world. Did it make it easier for me to revisit that moment? Absolutely it did because it wasn’t war-torn Kabul in 1995. It was make-believe London in 1856. It wasn’t too close to the bone. I did try to write about the genocide in Rwanda, which I was a witness to. I even went back there to research the book a few years ago courtesy of an Arts Council grant but it triggered a kind of delayed PTSD, which was bizarre and unexpected, fifteen years after the event. I couldn’t control the story or my feelings about the material and so I put the novel in a pending tray. But that’s not to say I won’t write contemporary fiction in the future. I almost certainly will but it has to be at the right time for me as a writer. For me, it’s not about “historical” verses “contemporary”. It’s all about the story. If the story is strong and if it’s demanding to be written, “calling me” (because that’s what it feels like when you have a story in your head – it won’t leave you alone), then I will attempt to write it as best as I can.
WR: I’ll look forward to reading it, if you do get round to it – although I’m also hoping you keep the Hatton and Roumande stories coming in the meantime. Thanks for talking with me, Denise – it’s been an absolute pleasure.