Here’s an interview with British crime writer John Barlow, author of the new LS9 series.
Q: What makes John Ray different from other (unofficial) PIs?
His whole family is deeply involved in crime, and he grew up in a criminal environment. But his girlfriend is police. John finds himself between the two worlds, which is psychologically difficult for him, but gives him a unique perspective when it comes to solving crimes.
Q: How did you come up with the character?
He came more or less fully formed. There’s a bit of wish-fulfilment, in that he’s the kind of man that I’d like to be (well, some of the time…). Other than that, I don’t remember ‘devising’ the character of John at all, at least not like I did with the characters that surround him. I knew I wanted someone with a split perceptive as a detective, and from that proposition John Ray emerged pretty much naturally.
Q: Why switch from literary to genre writing?
As a young, unpublished writer everything I wrote had a minimum of one dead body in it! Then, when I was 32 (and still unpublished) I wrote a novella about a man who eats furniture. It was published in the Paris Review (a very ‘literary’ American magazine) and won a prize. That led me into literary writing, and for the next decade I more or less forgot about crime fiction. Then, two years ago I wrote a semi-spoof American noir novel, WHAT EVER HAPPENED TO JERRY PICCO?, under the pseudonym Joe Florez. I loved writing it, and it made me think: why not do a serious crime mystery set in the place I know best? So I did.
Q: What’s next for you and John?
HOPE ROAD is the first novel in the LS9 series, which will eventually comprise nine books. They will not all feature John Ray as the point-of-view character, and they will not all take place in Leeds. But they will all be about the Ray family in some way. So, that’s my future! I’m into the second book now, and the plotting has been made slightly easier because I recently found out that a great uncle of mine was an arms dealer (found dead on a flight from Amsterdam in the early 80s). Go figure.
Q: How do you promote your work?
Ebooks and self-publishing are completely new to me. So far I’ve been contacting book bloggers and asking them to mention the novel, or to allow me to do a guest blog or interview. I’m also starting out with Twitter, and a few other social sites of a literary nature. I’ve only been publicising the book for a week, and I’m sure I’ll discover new ways of findings readers as time goes on. I always following the blog posts of David Gaughran, who is an excellent source of info and know-how on self publishing. As for advertising, I am running a Facebook ad (using a $7 coupon that gets you $50’s worth of ads), but I don’t think it’s having much effect.
Q: What’s your idea about the psychotic sidekick in PI novels like Hawk and Joe Pike?
My writing is not hard-boiled in that sense. I don’t depict righteous violence as a response to society’s ills. There is criminal violence in HOPE ROAD, but there is no violent retribution, at least not so far. What really interests me is how people deal with a world in which criminal violence and the threat of it are constants. My main character suffers from having witnessed the murder of his own brother (a career criminal), and it’s that close proximity to the inevitable violence of the criminal world which sets John Ray apart from ‘normal’ citizens. His girlfriend, a police detective, also exists in a world where criminal violence is a constant. To me, they’re an interesting pair.
Q: In the last century we’ve seen new waves of PI writers, first influenced by Hammett, then Chandler, Macdonald, Parker, later Lehane. Who do you think will influence the coming generation?
I think it will diversify to the point that a clear evolution is impossible to draw. A lot of ‘literary’ writers are moving into genre fiction, often crime, and that complicates the idea of a direct inheritance. Meanwhile, writers like Lee Child are leading the genre as close to parody as it can go (I mean this in a good way). However, this is a dead end in terms of the development of the genre; if you want to write broadly realistic fiction you couldn’t get MORE macho than Reacher, and the scrapes he manages to get out of couldn’t be more unlikely. A lot of writers, especially self-published ones, seem to be following this groove (and it’s a very good groove), I think the interesting trends moving forward will be those who take the genre away from pre-established moulds.
Q: Larry Block came up with the following question: How do you keep the series from running out of steam?
I dunno. Perhaps I will run out of steam. I certainly don’t want to write nine books with John Ray as the prime focus. I think we all know authors for whom the new novel is just a yearly chore. I was talking to an editor at a UK publisher a few weeks ago and she said that it is pretty much an accepted fact that when a crime writer gets his/her series well established, the quality often falls off. In the case of my LS9 series, books four to six will have a different point-of-view character, and if we get to book six and everything’s still going to plan, I’ll make another shift for the final three novels.
Q: What question should we ask every PI writer we interview and what is your answer? Do you write about crime because you’re too scared to do it?
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