After bursting onto the crime fiction scene with the accalmied novel Pariah, David Jackson’s newest release, The Helper, gives us another dose of New York life and Detective Callum Doyle. It’s the second book in the series and made me curious learn more by seeking out David for a chat.
1. Your first book Pariah was shortlisted in the Debut Dagger Awards and was Highly Commended, what inspired you to write it?
I love stories that are about one person against the world, but what I didn’t want to do was fall back on the old theme of a maverick cop working alone just because that’s what he prefers to do. This led me to think about ways in which a cop might be forced to work alone – he has no choice in the matter. Taking that idea to its extreme led me to making my hero an outcast, unable to approach friends or family for fear that he might bring about their deaths.
2. What was the hardest part of writing it?
I’d say the plotting. Once I’d established that Detective Doyle was to be forced into isolation, the question arose as to who was doing it to him and why. The easy way out would have been to make it a random psychopath who was doing it just for kicks, but I didn’t want that. There had to be logical reasons both for why it was being done, and for Doyle being the chosen victim of the ordeal. Another complication, of course, relates to how Doyle can investigate the case and find the killer if he can’t go anywhere or talk to anyone! Finding answers to all these questions and bringing them together seamlessly so that the reader says, ‘Aha, now I see it’ definitely gave me some major headaches.
3. Your new book The Helper, the second in the series, is out now. How different was your experience of writing the second book, compared to writing the first?
The basic idea for The Helper actually pre-dated Pariah, so I’d had plenty of time to mull it over. By the time I came to write it, it had evolved considerably, but I had a basic outline that translated to the page fairly readily. It also helped that this was a sequel, and so I had already established my main characters and their locations etc. On the other side of the coin, I think expectations of an author are greater for their second books, and being under contract, we have to work to tighter deadlines.
4. Why did you choose to set the primary location for the books in New York?
For one thing I needed a big city setting, a place where the pace of living is fast, where the reader won’t be too surprised by a high body count, and where the cops carry guns. Trying to set my stories in the quiet area in which I live just wouldn’t be realistic. There are other cities I could have chosen, but New York has always held a certain fascination for me. As a kid I loved the ‘Gothamised’ version of the city in the Batman comics, and still today I will read or watch anything set in the Big Apple. As the historic gateway to opportunity and freedom, the city has a hugely romantic atmosphere in addition to its dark underbelly, and its people have a uniquely hardened and yet quick-witted quality. I put a lot of effort into trying to capture all that in my novels. It’s not just about getting street names and building locations right. The hard part is in reflecting attitudes, speech patterns and ways of life. Occasionally I may make mistakes of detail, but I have spotted mistakes by authors who live in New York and are writing about their own city.
5. In one sentence how would you describe your protagonist Callum Doyle?
An ordinary guy thrown into extraordinary circumstances.
6. How long does it normally take you to write a book?
My contract gives me a year, and I think that is fairly common. I think it’s important to supply your readers with a book a year, if possible. Any less frequent than that and you run the danger of losing your fan-base. There are authors who can churn them out faster, but there is a danger that quality can suffer. Since I still have a day-job, one a year is plenty for me!
7. Just how important is the relationship between a writer and an editor?
I’d say it’s crucial. A good editor will help you to shape and re-structure your story in ways that will make it much more readable and marketable. An editor is also your champion in the publishing company. They will oversee all aspects of the production of your book, they will supply you with information regarding sales figures and so on, and they are the first point of contact if you have any problems or just want to have a good moan. Pariah and The Helper were both edited by a man called Will Atkins. I am eternally in his debt for giving me my break as a published author, and he is also an excellent editor. He has now left Pan Macmillan, and I have been taken under the wing of Wayne Brookes. Changing editors can be quite stressful for an author, and I have yet to experience Wayne’s story editing skills, but what I can say is that he is a wonderful guy with a remarkable reputation in the publishing world, and so far he has been terrific to work with.
8. After you submit a final draft, are there ever parts of your novels that you wished you’d been able to keep in?
If your editor suggests that you cut a section out of your novel, it can be painful, but they are usually right. There was a section in Pariah in which I went inside the head of Callum Doyle while he walked alone and friendless around New York, trying to come to terms with his isolation. My editor said that the problem with it was that it slowed down the pace of what was otherwise a very fast novel, and so out it went. I’m sure it was the right decision, but some time later a reviewer of the book said that he would have liked to have experienced more of the sense of isolation felt by Doyle. That did make me wonder for a while. Maybe one day I’ll publish it on my website as an outtake that hit the cutting room floor.
9. What books have influenced your life most?
It’s hard to settle on one book or set of books, because I have read a lot of things, both fiction and non-fiction, and covering a wide range of genres. Many of these have influenced me in different ways. For example, The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins had a great effect on me as a youth struggling to understand how we came to be here. And although I didn’t realise it at the time, I think I must have been heavily influenced by the writings of Isaac Asimov, the science fiction author. I loved his short stories, especially the clever twists he managed to introduce; but I was also fascinated by his essays and asides on his life as a writer, and the background to getting his stories and novels published. In terms of my own novels, though, I would have to say that the biggest influence has to have been the 87th Precinct novels by Ed McBain. Again set in a thinly-disguised New York, these books occupy pride of place on my bookshelves, and I am constantly re-reading them.
10. What do you think makes a good story?
Wanting to turn the page, and there are different ways of achieving this. One way is to have a story with lots of tension, lots of events, lots of pace. You keep turning the page because you want to know what happens next. Another way is to populate your story with fascinating characters. George Pelecanos is a master at getting inside the heads of characters who are killers and drug dealers and pimps, and making the reader want to know their stories. Then there are the books that make you turn the page simply because the writing is so delightful. Superb writing is just such a pleasure to read. I particularly admire writing that can make me laugh out loud; for me, P G Wodehouse is unsurpassed for this.
11. What do you like to do when you’re not writing?
Well, there’s my day job, which takes up most of my non-writing time. But what I really like doing is just spending time with my family. It might be a boring answer to some, but when you’ve got two jobs on the go, it’s important not to let family life suffer.
12. What advice would you give to aspiring writers?
Write the book you’d like to read. Which is not the same thing as write what you know – a piece of advice I dislike intensely because it’s often interpreted far too strictly. You don’t need to have been a police officer to write a detective novel. You don’t need to be four hundred years old to write a historical novel. You don’t need to fly around on broomsticks to write about a boy wizard. You don’t even need to be a man to write about a man – as eminent authors such as Ruth Rendell and P D James have proven. As a writer you are gifted with a powerful imagination, so use it. Write what interests or fascinates you, and do research to find out the things you don’t know.
To buy The Helper and David’s earlier book Pariah, please click on the links below.