21st Nov2013

Interview with William Shaw

by Lloyd Paige

William Shaw has written non-fiction books and has been a journalist for a number of years. Set in the 1960’s, A Song From Dead Lips is his first novel and I was pleased that he accepted my invitation to come onto the site and talk about it in more detail.

1. Hi William, your time as a journalist has taken you to a few interesting places including America’s South Central. What’s been your most insightful investigation?

I’ve been lucky to be able to immerse myself in lots of strange scenes, from religious cults to neo-Nazi groups. I guess the one you mentioned though – my time in South Central Los Angeles – would be the one I learned from the most. I was fortunate enough to be able to spend over a year researching there and just being able to achieve that depth really allows you to build your perspective. The young men I was hanging around with all – without exception – had friends and relatives who had been killed, often brutally, often without anyone ever discovering who the perpetrators were. That kind of deep trauma really changes how a society works.

2. Do authors of non-fiction have a responsibility to give an unbiased view or is it their responsibility to give the view as they see it?

Yes and yes. I don’t think those are opposites. You have to allow yourself to be changed by what you see – so in that sense you have to be unbiased. But it’s then your job to work out how to represent what you’ve seen as accurately as possible.

3. You now have a novel published but I gather A Song from Dead Lips was not the first one you wrote, what happened to the others and how did they differ?

You’re right. I completed two other novels. They were both crime based, in that they both revolved around murders. Mainly they differed in the sense that they weren’t very good. They didn’t know what they were, which means that they were classed as literary fiction rather than crime. And though my agent at the time tried his best with them they never found homes. As an act of kindness the agent in question told me not to give him a third one but I found myself writing A Song From Dead Lips anyway. I think by then I was much clearer about what I wanted to do. Or rather what I wanted to, not do.

4. Have you ever been tempted to rewrite one of them?

I will go back to the first of those two at some stage. It had an opening which I still really like and which I’m still taken aback that I ever wrote. The second is still irredeemably awful.

5. In the competitive world of crime fiction what would you say makes your book stand out?

Crime fiction is an astonishing genre. The supreme device of the crime plot allows you to take readers to extraordinary places. In fact I’m starting to realise that’s almost the most important duty of the crime writer. We’re used to being taken to locations like Turkey by Barbara Nadel, or Iceland by Arnaldur Indridason. And there’s the historical novel too with CJ Sansom immersing us in the 16th century.

Because I’ve spent a lot of time writing about culture, whether it be hip hop or art and design, I wondered if you could write a cultural crime novel in the same way as you could write historical crime fiction, so I set the trilogy at a time of enormous cultural change – and those changes are a crucial part of the plots. So I think of it as cultural crime fiction rather than historical crime fiction, if that doesn’t sound too pompous. Whether the book stands out or not as a result, I don’t know. I hope so.

6. Please explain the relationship between the Beatles and your book?

The Beatles are glimpsed from afar. They’re part of the backdrop. You briefly see John Lennon from a distance – that’s all. But I wanted this book to be about what was happening culturally in Britain in 1968 and The Beatles were a massive part of that. There was a huge shift in views; a chasm opened up between my father’s generation and mine. And to young people, groups like The Beatles represented a kind of salvation from everything their parents represented.

So to answer your question, the girl who is murdered is one of those people who had used The Beatles as a way to escape from everything their parents stood for. She was a fan – one of the infamous Apple Scruffs who hung around the Apple offices and EMI studios. The Beatles were no longer the loveable mop tops by then. John Lennon was arrested for drugs during the timeline of the book, which allowed me to bring The Beatles into DS Breen’s orbit – albeit tangentially.

7. Were the Beatles the main reason for the book being set in 1968?

Actually yes. I kind of worked the timeline back from the John Lennon drug bust. And also I really wanted to write about the White Album period because The Beatles were really losing the plot at that point. I quite liked that it was this period where the revolutionary impulse of the 1960s suddenly got bogged down in drugs and ideological argument. It was a very messy time.

8. What was the starting point for creating your main characters DS Breen and WPC Tozer, and how did you want them to develop as the story progressed?

I started with a second generation immigrant detective. I made him Polish but was only a few pages in when a good writer friend pointed out that I knew nothing about Polish culture. He said “Why not make him Irish?” It was one of those slap-your-forehead moments. My father was Irish. I married into an Irish family. I am very familiar with the London Irish experience. It made sense.

Where Tozer came from I have no idea at all. The biggest fun about writing is the stuff that happens without you planning it. She appeared fully formed during a scene at a CID meeting for no reason at all. She just barged in. I was ecstatic. I’m cautious of developing their relationship too far. The reader should know they’re good for each other and want them to be together, but they should always fail to quite make it.

9. You’re a believer in the detective never solves everything which is a realistic approach to take. However, do you think that readers of fiction generally expect a resolution?

I think that most readers are dissatisfied by plots where everything fits together with Agatha Christie like precision. From Chandler and Hammett onwards I think it’s been accepted that the hero can’t make everything right. Crime fiction still requires a strong narrative arc in which the detective has to fix something, but increasingly it’s less clear what that thing is. I think that leaves a lot of space for realism. I go back to that time in Los Angeles. At that point I was visting a place where virtually nothing was solved. I think that had an impact on me.

10. Once you have a story, do you write with the mindset that your agent and publisher have to like it as well, or are you able to put those thoughts to one side?

It’s less the agent and the publisher than the reader. I think that writing is about a kind of dance you do with the imagined reader. The reader makes up at least 50% of the book in his or her head. The pleasure is in leaving space for that to happen. So I wouldn’t dream of putting that aside. I really like that aspect of writing – being really confident in the reader’s ability to add their part of the story.

11. What type of writers have you admired during the years?

All sorts. I love a lot of American “dirty realism” from Hemmingway up to Carver and onwards. I picked up a lot of classic crime fiction from Erskine Childers to Maigret from my dad and introduced him to the whole Jim Thompson oeuvre. Most importantly he introduced me to Nicholas Freeling who was the first “European” crime writer the UK produced. His books don’t read that well today but he’s a big influence on this idea of the cultural crime novel for me. I like a lot of the British realism too, from James Kelman to Alan Warner. Right now I’m reading a Malcolm Mackay which is great.

12. What has been the most exciting part for you so far as a debut author?

The fact that people some people really seem to have liked it. In journalism you already have an audience because of what you’re writing about. In fiction you start from nothing apart from the guff inside your head. If fiction is a dance between writer and reader, it’s really exciting that there are some readers who want to do that dance on your terms.

13. Having written non-fiction and now fiction, what is the most important ingredient that you think a book should have?

The great thing about that question is there can’t possibly be an answer. For a four hundred year old form it’s amazing how much potential for subtle variation there is in it. If you’d have asked that ten years ago I could have tried a smartarse response like, “A cover”. But they don’t even need those any more. A good crime book is like a three act play though. It needs a good arc. Without that it’s just annoying.

14. Finally, A Song from Dead lips was the first but now you’ve written a second in the series, what can you tell us about that?

I’m copy editing it right now and I think it’s better than the first. And copy editing is the stage where I usually hate every line. My editor agrees. He rang me up twice while reading it to tell me how much he liked it and he never does that, apparently. I can tell you that both the second and the third book rely on events that are all there tucked away in the first book but which you may have not even realised were going to be important.


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