#BritCrime Festival Special: John Martin, MP Wright and Tony R Cox talk about writing

BritCrime Festival Special: John Martin, MP Wright and Tony R Cox in discussion about their writing: their literary heroes, whether their former careers helped or hindered their writing, how it felt to see their books in a bookshop for the first time, why reading reviews is not like going to the dentist... and more! Read on:

Crime Scene Britain and Ireland
John Martin is a retired librarian. He was a judge for the CWA Dagger in the Library Award for 3 years, and is a regular speaker on crime fiction, most recently at the Penzance Literary Festival 2016. He lives in Leicester. He is the author of Crime Scene Britain and Ireland
John Martin's book on Amazon

First Dead Body
Tony R. Cox is a retired journalist and public relations consultant. He lives near Leicester. He is the author of First Dead Body (available now) and A Fatal Drug (due out later this year with Farenheit Press.)
Tony R. Cox's books on Amazon

All Through the Night
Mark Wright worked in the music industry before spending some time as a private investigator. He then retrained and worked for 20 years in mental health and the probation service. He lives in Leicester. He is the author of the Heartman series and other books.
MP Wright's books on Amazon

Did you always want to be a writer?

John Martin
John Martin: I have always loved books, but never thought of myself as a writer. I did quite enjoy writing stories while at school, and I wrote some concert reviews of Pink Floyd in the late seventies, but never did anything with them (though one of them is now on a Pink Floyd fan site!). In 2001 I started writing talks on crime fiction for library audiences, and it was one of those that led to the opportunity to write the book.

Tony R Cox: From Biggles to editing the school magazine; then 15 years in newspapers (including writing reviews of the great 70s bands – marrying my two loves, writing and rock); and 25 years in the writing-heavy PR industry. It was eventually great to get out and indulge my wish to write crime fiction.

M P Wright: I’ve always written; lyrics for punk bands back in my long lost youth, Short stories, plays, poetry and screenplays... the road to become a Novelist was a long journey, which I kept hidden from family and friends for over 20 years. Now, there is nothing else I’d rather do.

Did your original career help or hinder you in your writing?

JM: As a librarian I had access to a huge number of crime novels across many different libraries, which was great. As the Fiction Specialist for Leicestershire Libraries I saw all new novels, so that kept me up to date with new authors, publishing trends etc, so when I was given the opportunity to turn a one hour talk into a book I had plenty of knowledge to base it on.

Tony R Cox
TRC: A massive help in that I was disciplined and guided, then was able to discipline and guide others. The leap between journalism and then the public relations commercial world, into fiction was a massive chasm, but unbelievably exciting. The encouragement of friends was, and is, a vital factor.

MPW: In a single word... No. The kind of work I used to be involved in (Probation Service, Offender Risk Assessment, Criminal Mental Health for over 25 Years) defies a literary voice. I’d find no personal pleasure in writing about such life experiences and detailing or chronicling incidents or individuals in fiction. Most of the offenders I worked with had committed heinous crimes. I’d struggle to put those offences into words. One thing that smacks to me as totally inaccurate in modern crime writing is how little the present day crime writer knows about the true criminal mind. What actually makes them tick. That fact always rings true on the page for me, the prattling on about the brilliance of the criminal mind. Utter tosh. Most serial offenders are not Hannibal Lector. Rather they are socially timid, ignorant of world events and the people in it and deeply, emotionally and mentally complex. If a book blurb mentions a serial killer on the back page... that’s it, I’m offski!

Who are your literary heroes/ who would you like to be compared to?

JM: As a child my hero was Biggles. Then I discovered Christie and Doyle, and never looked back. Amongst contemporary writers I am a particular fan of Peter Robinson, Belinda Bauer and Graham Hurley. I also now follow the work of Barry Forshaw very closely, and would like to follow in his footsteps. He gets all the best panels at the best festivals - which he deserves, as he is the pre-eminent commentator on crime fiction.

TRC: Hemingway, Ian McEwan, Shakespeare – anyone who can paint a picture in words and make the reader live every moment. There are so many great authors out there: I don’t aspire to comparison, but I do feel I want to be one of them.

MP Wright
MPW: Both James Lee Burke and Walter Mosley have influence my own writing immensely. I could waffle on endlessly about the reasons, but to be concise, both writers offer up to the reader an important quality in their main characters of Robicheaux and Rawlins – And that’s integrity. Yes, both men are flawed but they are very real on the page and I wanted to emulate that in my own characters, flaws and all. Burke and Mosley’s characters are not heroic and JT Ellington is far from being a hero, but there is a heroic nature that develops in the man which is unfurled by his strong moral compass. He’s a man who is forced into a job he really doesn’t want. Desperation and necessity are what dictates his decisions as Heartman’s story develops. The relevancy of the American author angle is that I wanted to bring some of the ‘Man Alone’ feel to the current British Crime Fiction arena. Not in the ‘Maverick’ detective sense of the police procedural but as in the Hammett/Chandler/MacDonald world weary and cynical feel. I hope I’ve created that kind of vibe in Heartman. As a comparison to my own writing the critics have been kind, citing my writing to be bed fellows with MacDonald, Mosley, Burke and the great William Faulkner. I hasten to add, those are critics comparisons, not mine.

How did you arrive at your central character, and what makes him unique?

TRC: Simon Jardine is a combination of many of the young reporters I have known. His is an era where drinking copious amounts of beer and still coming back with the story was seen as an asset. I want him to encapsulate a time and a profession that will never be repeated; I want him to be fallible and naive as well as single-minded and dedicated – just like some of the best journalists I have known.

MPW: J T Ellington as a character came to me very easily. I’d mapped out a huge back story and had a moleskin notebook containing his family history, much of it created from my own imagination, some of it garnered from research into family histories on the island of Barbados. I’ve had the luck to travel to the Caribbean and many of the Southern states of the USA, especially Louisiana. I wanted to hang around the JT’s persona a strong layer of credibility and a sense of the real whilst giving the readers a feel for an ‘Old Age’ detective, on that harks back to the times of Raymond Chandler and Ross MacDonald. I say to my Daughters that JT is the hero I could never be, but his Cousin Vic, is in some ways (I’m shame faced to admit) very much me. His humour and no nonsense attitude certainly hark back to my own rather irascible personality. Carnell and Loretta are very much ‘Real People’ who I have known for a long time. They know who they are but I’m not telling. They are two strong characters in the book that I’m very proud of.

The setting of the books is important- how well do you know the places where your books are set? 

TRC: The Simon Jardine murder thrillers are set in Derby, where I worked as a reporter from 1970 to 1978 and knew every inch of the town and county. But in A Fatal Drug I have also travelled to Spain to capture the burgeoning leisure industry and the birth of cheap flights to the country’s Costas. I feel it is important to take the reader on a journey with you, certainly emotionally, but also geographically.

MPW: Of all the questions I’ve been asked about Heartman; ‘Why Bristol?’ is the one that is sprung on me most. Originally I’d tried to set the book here in my home town of Leicester, but logistically and on scale, it simply didn’t work. Bristol is a big and beautiful city. Its also strong connected to the West Indies in a commercial and commerce sense, most certainly historically for all the wrong reasons; slavery being the foremost. Heartman is set in St Pauls which sits just outside of Bristol city centre. It was ghettoised early on by greedy, white landlords who packed new immigrants from the West Indies who had travelled thousands of miles to the mother country seeking work and the promise of ‘Streets That Were Paved with Gold’. What they got was far from the truth. Cramped tenement homes, badly paid jobs nobody else wanted and not always the warm welcome that the British political state had promised them either. Bristol was the right place for JT to make his new home. I wanted to put him in a world that was both familiar and alien. Ellington understands how British society works to some degree, he’s witness first hand the White ‘Officer Class’ of the Barbadian Police Force in which he used to serve but at the same time is knocked for six by a country that is far removed from the Caribbean life he has led.

How did you decide on the scope of your book, John?
JM: I wanted to write a book that was accessible to the general crime reader, and so I wanted it to be readable and reliable. I likened it to the Good Pub Guide - exhaustive coverage countrywide, but broken into specific areas, looking to encourage readers to try new authors, and making their own decisions as to whether to read more of that author's work.
And how did you decide where to draw your area boundaries? eg why does your West Country include The Cotswolds?

JM: Originally I tried to write a county by county guide, but soon realised that this wasn't feasible as too many authors wrote across too many counties. Therefore I broke the country into regions, and had to make some controversial decisions such as putting the Cotswolds into the West Country rather than the Midlands, and adding Aberdeen to the Scottish Highlands and Islands section.

What were the key decisions that influenced the layout of your book?

JM: I soon realised that as well as having to use regions, I had to limit the amount I wrote about any one author to 400 words, with a minimum of 60. Also I decided to concentrate on authors writing since 1960, with a selection of Golden Age and earlier authors to ensure comprehensive coverage.
I also decided to leave out authors if I could not be certain of the setting - the best example being Susan Hill. She does not make it clear whether her cathedral city of Lafferton was meant to be in Devon, Wiltshire or Gloucestershire. Even so I ended up with 96,000 words on 400+ authors who have written around 5000 crime novels!

If we could be a fly on the wall and watch you writing, what would we see?

JM: I write on a PC in an upstairs room - which is permanently untidy, with books everywhere. I always write with something on in the background, either music (usually) or cricket commentary (often).I also tend to talk to myself as I write!

TRC: A body bent over a laptop in a small office, staring at a blank wall waiting for inspiration. No distractions and, when I am really stuck, a few yards walk to my allotment to discuss the plot with the cabbages and beans. They’re often right.

MPW: A madman waving his hands about, swearing, playing Public Image Ltd way to loud with a picture of Noel Coward looking at me...

Describe the excitement of seeing your book in a bookshop for the first time

JM: The best moment of my writing life was seeing the book on the shelf in Foyle's in London - I turned it face out and took a photo for posterity!

TRC: I was self-published with First Dead Body, but the thrill of the launch and book signing at Scarthin Books, Cromford (best signing they’d ever had, they said) will stay with me. A Fatal Drug is published by Fahrenheit Press, so it’s currently digital and will be paperback through Amazon soon. I await the thrill of seeing my book in a bookshop.

MPW: Surreal is the first word that comes to mind. Wonderful to see it on the shelf after months of hard slog. I’m accused by those who love and know me of not enjoying the moment when the books are published, and that’s very true. I’m very much a ‘Pit Face’ writer, I love to write, but I’m not too hot with all that comes with it, the self PR, Facebook, Twitter and festivals... Great for those writers who do enjoy that side of the industry, but for me its simply a necessary evil. Give me the pub any day of the week.

How many words do you aim to write on a good/bad day?

JM: I have no set amount, really. When writing the book, I would aim to write 6 or 7 entries on a good day (on average about 2000 words)

TRC: As an ex-journalist I can easily knock out 3,000 to 4,000 words, but then comes the hard part of re-writing, editing, honing and producing something worthy.

Are Amazon reviews important? More/less so than other reviews?

JM: Amazon is a major player in publishing, so reviews on their site have to be important. Unfortunately I've not had very many.

TRC: Amazon is, I believe, the world’s biggest bookshop, so every review is gold dust, even the negative, nasty ones. The difficulty is asking the reader to take the jump from reading to writing about the book they’ve read.

MPW: I’m very grateful to all of the fantastic folk who have take time to write aReview, good or bad. Amazon reviews are important for the consumer, for the reader and it lets me, the writer, now how I’m doing. If it wasn’t for the readers, where would we writers be? So yeah, very important.

For Tony and Mark: Do you set out to shock readers? If so, how?

TRC: To a small extent. Torture, murder and sundry violence is always shocking so I hope to share that emotion with the reader.

MPW: I’ve never set out to shock the reader; that’s not my writing style...
Do you know the end of the book before you start writing it?

TRC: No! The narrative takes on a life of its own and moves the writer and reader along. That said, once the first draft has been written, while the re-writing and editing is brutal, the structure and finale remain.

MPW: Yes.

What is your view on epublishing? Is your book available electronically? 

JM: Epublishing is a sea change in publishing - and my book is available via Amazon kindle. Having said that, nothing beats the smell of new books!

TRC: The publishing world continues to change. Some would claim ebooks are a major advance, and I am among them; some that the printed word is still the most tangible and pleasurable, and I’d agree with that as well. Sales of First Dead Body and A Fatal Drug (which is in its infancy) have been significantly greater digitally than print.

MPW: If folk are reading, that’s great news. Ebook, paperback or hardback; whatever suits the individual. I’m just chuffed that books are being read by ‘Joe Public’

Describe the excitement of publication day

JM: My excitement really began when I received my 6 personal copies and saw the published book for the first time - actually about 5 days before publication.

TRC: First Dead Body was my debut and was a new baby. The launch and signing were just one long party at Scarthin Books. That smile still sweeps across my face when I think back. A Fatal Drug’s publication day was a totally different methodology with Fahrenheit. There was a ‘Twitter storm’ and I was then told that nothing would happen for at least two months: that two months isn’t up yet.

MPW: I’m probably not the best writer to ask this; I don’t get the buzz perhaps other writers do for publication day. I’m pleased that the book is out and that readers can dip in if they wish, but otherwise, it's business as usual...

What, briefly, do you want readers to get from your work?

JM: I want to encourage readers to broaden their reading and try fresh authors, both new and old. As a librarian my role to encourage reading - and I see my book as a continuation of this.

TRC: A little escapism and, to some extent, an insight into the world of newspapers, rock music, drugs and decadence in the early 1970s. The ‘free love’ of the 1960s was slowly creeping up the M1: we could read about it, hear about it, but it was the 1970s, probably prefaced by The Pill becoming more widespread, before attitudes were loosened up.

MPW: To fall in love with the characters I’ve created and to become lost in the world in which they are set...

Do bad reviews hurt?

JM: You have to accept that not everyone will like your work, and to an extent take it on the chin. What does hurt is when it is justified and you think - I could have done better.

TRC: So far not at all. The fact that someone has read the book and taken the trouble to write and express an opinion is good. Mind you, I was a little put off by my work being called ‘turgid’: it’s a fantastic word, but I’d rather it wasn’t used in conjunction with my writing!

MPW: It’s a review, not the dentist... Reviewers are out there. Its there job to critique. I have no axe to grind with them. I have to say, the UK Book Bloggers and press have been both generous and kind to my work and I love ‘em for it. Bad reviews come with the writers turf, same as good. As Clint Eastwood’s Dirty Harry once said; “Opinions are like ass’ oles, everybody’s got one.”

What promotions have worked best for your book?

JM: Taking part in literary festivals and talking to library audiences, WI's, U3A etc.

TRC: I did the full round of newspaper and regional/local magazines and local radio, but what has worked best, it seems, has been Amazon’s own promotions. Plus Fahrenheit’s global presence and know-how.

MPW: EDPR the London based PR company, headed up by the brilliant Emma Draude and Sophie Goodfellow. Proof that PR specialists really do help sell books and get your work out to the big, wide world. I doff my cap to ‘em.

What is the best piece of writing advice you have ever been given?

JM: Write something that you would want to read yourself.

RC: Write about what you know –and make sure that what you know has a wide and interesting remit and isn’t boring.

MPW: Keep writing... one word at a time and write what you want to read. Also, good reading makes good writing.

John Martin, Richard Cox, MP Wright
July 2016

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