Killer Reads: When did you start writing?
SD: I began writing after I left university in Kent in 1979. The initial focus of my work was comedy. I became interested in the alternative comedy scene of the early eighties and decided to try my hand at both sketches and stand-up material. Performing comedy is the hardest thing I’ve ever done and though I had some limited encouragement from audiences I decided to stick to the writing. I wrote comedy with a university friend and we produced a TV play and subsequent pilot for a series for Channel 4 called Not Enough Poodles of which I was very proud. Unfortunately it didn’t pass the final hurdle after looking set for production and this, along with other fruitless approaches to outlets like Private Eye and Spitting Image, caused me to drift away from comedy.
My first paying job in writing was for the Latchmere Theatre Company in Battersea in 1990 when I was asked by the director to write the book for the Christmas Pantomime Hansel and Gretel, which won several fringe theatre awards.
In 1996, having spent the intervening years doing some freelance journalism and teaching, my wife and I moved to Derby and suddenly being able to work part-time I picked up the pen seriously again. I decided that the novel was where I wanted to direct my energies and I had the idea for The Reaper in 1999 and started the year after.
Killer Reads: Where do you write? And what’s your routine?
I write as often as I can, work permitting, in a very untidy office on a laptop. At least it’s untidy when I leave it, covered in open reference books with bits of paper containing cryptic notes that often I don’t understand the day after. Things get tidier when my wife works in there but then follows the inevitable search for all my resources and scraps of paper. Like Sherlock Holmes, I would prefer my “system” to be unmolested by tidiness but this is probably sheer laziness.
I try to keep to office hours and rarely write at weekends – Saturday and Sunday are for leisure and I’m loath to do much but watch and play sport and indulge my love of cooking and walking in the Peak District.
KR: What are the pros and cons of being a writer?
SD: The pros are obvious. Although it’s hard graft sometimes it beats proper work and being at the behest of an employer. Control over the fruits of your own labour is also a big attraction. All a writer’s efforts belong to him or her, which sounds selfish, I know, but it means you are your own boss.
And there can be few finer times in a writer’s life than the cold and wet winter’s morning walking through to the office to inhabit your private world while the rest of humanity struggles into work against the elements. Obviously the reverse applies in summer to an extent. A major drawback for me is the sedentary and solitary nature of the activity. I am sociable and like to think I’m fairly sporty so writing doesn’t tick either of those boxes very well. Also I tend to snack through the day when writing, which is not good.
KR: Which writers have inspired you?
SD: In terms of thrillers my two favourite writers would be Thomas Harris and Michael Connelly. Both Americans. I’m not sure why that is but there’s something about the nature of reading which demands that you be transported to an unfamiliar place, either literally or metaphorically, and I suppose much of the backdrop for all English thriller writing is too familiar – an immediate disadvantage for me. This also explains my appetite for foreign travel. I want the unfamiliar, I like to be daunted by a journey then become comfortable with the destination and then I’ll move onto the next place. The same applies with reading. Familiarity breeds contempt and I will actively avoid reading anything past a fifth or sixth book in a series as too often characters and locations have become tired and uninteresting.
I also have a problem with the notion of thriller writing. Having grown up on a diet of John Fowles, Norman Mailer, Joseph Heller, Truman Capote and Gore Vidal, I like to think that having written a story in 130,000 words that I’m a novelist first. The fact that my stories hopefully have thrills, shocks, twists and turns is a bonus, but those thrills will absolutely not be there unless I’m certain that they completely inhabit the landscape I’m trying to create.
KR: How important is a sense of place in your writing
SD: It’s central. I like my stories to grow organically within a setting so the action feels as though it fits the place. It’s pointless trying to write any other way and I’ve got a big kick meeting readers who’ve told me how exciting it was to read a story that takes place in streets they think they know. Others have been appalled and offended to think that I can imagine such acts of violence in their city, but I’ve taken that as a compliment to the effectiveness of the action.
KR: Do you spend a lot of time researching your novels?
SD: Where necessary. I’m not slavish about it but there are certain aspects if you’re writing about murder and police procedure that you simply have to know. At other times educated guessing will suffice because there has to be a balance between artistic licence and the tedium of researching every tiny detail. Such encyclopaedic knowledge can and frequently does weigh the story down if you overdo it.
KR: Do your characters ever surprise you?
SD: This is a hard question because there is an absolute sense in which as the writer I am seeking to create and control the universe in which my characters interact. With an intricate plot such as The Reaper there has to be a certain amount of discipline from the characters, almost as if they’re actors performing a piece. In a different type of novel I’m sure writers can set their players adrift and see what happens to an extent, but for me relinquishing control is much more difficult within the confines of the story. Having said that I was aware when writing The Reaper how some characters were different from the way I had imagined them from the start. John Noble, for instance, was much brasher and raw at the start of writing and he turned out to be a much quieter individual and at times the equal of Brook in terms of his deductive abilities. Brook also was much darker at the start of writing but became lighter with each re-write and he’s not above making jokes, albeit laced with the cynicism you expect from one so damaged.
KR: How much of your life and the people around you do you put into your books?
SD: Very little of real people goes into the book. What I take from people is not who they are but the things that they do and say that show certain things about them. Brook out of all the characters is the only one with small pieces of me in him but not much – the main trait being his inability to get animated or surprised about what’s going on around him. This gives him a stillness which I think helps define his essential being. He’s seen it all and would prefer not to see it again.