Julie Lewthwaite writes hard first rate Noir.
She writes with a narrative immediacy that takes you straight to the story and lets it unfold with realism and menace. Her use of physical detail heightens the sense that the reader is about to see something nasty. Her characters are real and her stories tightly structured.
Her collection of stories ‘Gone Bad’ is out and they read beautifully.
She met me at The Slaughterhouse where we talked about double lives and political crises.
Do you believe in ghosts?
Intellectually, no. They’re right up there with magic powers, supreme beings and fairies at the bottom of the garden.
And yet, and yet ….
I love ghost stories. I can remember when I was a kid getting home from the library with an armful of books and sitting at the hearth in the dying light of a winter afternoon, firelight casting crazy shadows on the walls, reading about headless horsemen and grey ladies, chain-dragging ghouls and shroud-clad wraiths. Perhaps unsurprisingly, I had some scary experiences back then. Sudden chills that made my hair stand on end. Feelings of dread, verging on sheer terror. I heard odd noises, found cold spots.
What might be more surprising is that the house had been exorcised, although I didn’t find this out until much later. By tradition the curate of the parish came to tea regularly with my Nana. (It had originally been Nana and Granda’s house and my dad and his brothers and sisters had grown up there.) Anyway, one particular curate, after he’d visited a number of times, asked for permission to conduct an exorcism as he felt very uncomfortable in the house. And apparently he did, although bearing in mind the experiences I had growing up, I would suggest it wasn’t terribly successful. Not just me, either. My dad’s eldest brother wouldn’t go upstairs on his own even as an adult. Something on the quarter landing at the turn of the stairs greatly disturbed him. When I was eleven or twelve, I saw my grandfather in the house. Bearing in mind he died when I was a week old, it was an unexpected encounter.
So, in fairness, I think my answer has to be, ‘No, but ….’
If you were given an unlimited sum of money to commit a crime what would it be and how would it differ from the crimes you write about?
I was tempted at first to just offer David Cameron and Nick Clegg each an obscene amount of money to kill the other. I reckon there’s no doubt they’d take the offer – they’ve pretty much proved beyond all doubt that they can be bought – and since they’d very likely sub-contract the dirty work, odds are they’d both be done away quite cleanly by professionals. How would it differ from the crimes I write about? No innocent people would be hurt.
However, having given the matter some considerable thought, I have a better plan. Since money is no object, I shall arrange to have built a secret underground base in the style of a Bond villain. I can’t decide whether it should be offshore, in a mountain or whatever, but I’m not going to worry about that just now. I might get a cat. I could afford a cat with all that money. Perhaps a black one, or maybe a little ginger fella. (I have a weakness for ginger toms.) I’d also have an army of geeky, techie geniuses at my disposal. Loads of them. Smart as can be. Their job – for which they would be amply rewarded – would be to target the bank accounts of the world’s over-privileged rich, right-wing sympathisers and to empty them. Then we’d move on to bully boys and supremacists and strip them of their wealth, too. Then the religious – especially the likes of TV evangelists who con money out of the gullible. There’d be more people to take money from – we’ve only picked up royal loot, for example, by default so far – but you get the gist.
As to what I would do with all that wealth, that vast, obscene lake of tainted cash, well … some catnip toys for Ginge. Wages for me and the geniuses. And what was left could go to the people who need it. Let’s get people out of poverty. Let’s feed the hungry and treat the sick. And we can have schools and hospitals and libraries … and that’s just for starters. I’m sure there’s loads more we could do.
This differs from the stuff I write about in that – as far as I can see – it’s victimless crime. But reading this over, I wonder if I’m really cut out to be a villain.
Do you think that the tension between an individual’s fantasies and reality is a source of crime and drama?
We all experience the world differently in accordance with our own hopes and fears, likes and dislikes, the things we have learned. One person’s dream is another person’s nightmare. My reality might not be your reality. I think crime and drama happen when the differences between those realities are exposed.
For example, in one of my stories a lonely man hires an escort for the night. When they get up the next morning, in his mind she is now his girlfriend and they will have a future together. In her mind, she has finished work and wants to get home to get on with her life. When she makes it abundantly clear that they don’t share the same reality, he reacts badly and we have crime and drama.
Scope also exists in the disparity between what we have and what we would like to have, and the steps we might take to bridge that gap. For example, if a group of people who each covet the latest electronic gadget see someone else in possession of one, they are likely to react in different ways. One might feel worthless because he can’t afford one, another might feel motivated to get a better paid job so he can buy himself one soon, and yet another might decide he wants one now, punch the guy in the head and take his from him. If the object of desire is human, a wife, a boyfriend, perhaps a baby, then that ratchets up the stakes somewhat. And of course when reality takes over from fantasy, things really get messed up.
Let’s say, having spent three years worshiping her from afar and fantasizing about the idyllic life they might have together, Tommy finally gets up the courage to ask Lisa out. Things go well, they quickly move in together, he has his dream girl, his dream life. He’s ecstatically happy, right? Well, maybe. What if he finds out that she leaves her toenail clippings on the bedroom floor, can’t cook, doesn’t hang her towel up after she showers and spends all evening on Facebook chatting with her mates and ignoring him; is he still ecstatic?
Or to put it another way, in answer to your question, definitely!
Tell us about ‘Gone Bad’.
Gone Bad is a collection of stories that were written over a period of about five years. The earliest are ‘It Could Be You’ and ‘Let’s Dance’. They were also my first published stories, appearing as they did in the now-defunct Bullet magazine back in 2006. The most recent story is ‘Local Hero’ which was sitting half-written on my hard drive and was completed for the collection.
The stories explore common themes: alienation, dysfunction, the desire for instant gratification and an inability to see the consequences of actions taken. This is short fiction with a noir edge, gritty, sweary, northern and nasty, featuring flawed, foul-mouthed, misguided characters. Some people say it’s funny. Clearly those puppies are sick.
All but ‘Local Hero’ have been previously published, some online on sites that no longer exist, others in print, where stories often seem to last no longer than a couple of months. Having just recently woken up to the idea of e-books, I thought pulling them together into a collection would be not only a good idea, but also a great way to dip my toe in the water. It was a pretty steep learning curve, but very rewarding and I’m pleased with the results.
Reviews so far have been positive, for which I’m very grateful, although no doubt it’s just a matter of time before my first one star review appears somewhere!
Do you think people can live a double life without being detected?
For a time, sure. Let me tell you about Harry* …
Some years ago Joel (my now ex) and I met a couple in the bar we drank in. We got chatting and over time we became friends. Candy, the girlie, worked in an office and Harry was a colour sergeant in the marines, on secondment to the TA in some sort of training capacity.
Gerry who ran the pub we all drank in did a lot of charity fundraising. Harry sorted us out with a day on an assault course – a bunch of folk got sponsors and a decent amount of money was made. Quite a lot of the youngsters from the TA were on hand to help and some of them had got sponsors, too. We had a cracking day.
We went along to a Remembrance Day service one time, Harry in his uniform looking smart as paint and taking an active role in what went on, the kids he was training making their parents and him proud.
One time Gerry told me that Harry had been in the pub on the day before his birthday and had been invited to stay after hours. Harry had mentioned more than once that his birthday was no longer a time for celebration, since the date fell so near to a battle in the Falklands war when he lost a lot of comrades. Gerry told me he had been deeply moved when he and Harry had been talking and drinking to see the big man’s eyes fill up at the memory of what had happened. Despite all the great stories he told that had people roaring with laughter, that was a time he wouldn’t normally talk about in any detail and Gerry felt privileged to have been taken into Harry’s confidence.
Harry and Candy had a little boy. Joel and I were Godparents (despite being essentially godless ourselves). Harry, his superior officer, and a couple of other friends were there at the Christening and afterwards at the do, all in uniform, all chatting quite openly about life in the military.
Then one day I got a phone call at work. It was Candy and she wanted to know if she and the kid could come and stay for a few days. She sounded upset. Well, when they got there that evening, I sorted them out with dinner and when the nipper went to bed, the wine came out and we got talking. Candy seemed uncharacteristically quiet, but she had stuff she needed to say and sure enough, a couple of glasses of vino and it all started to come out.
Turned out Harry had never been in the army. Not ever. He was in the TA, but that was a far as it had ever gone. He certainly wasn’t on secondment in a training role from the marines. When he went to work every day, it was to a fairly menial job in an office. Candy had often complained that Harry didn’t earn much and that his mess bills put a hell of a dent in his salary. Joel knew roughly what someone at his rank should be making and it wasn’t peanuts, so we’d always just put that down to Candy having unrealistic expectations.
Turned out that the folk at the Christening were all TA, too, although they were all happy to talk it up as if they were regular army. Seems they’d picked up their uniforms and a bunch of medals, braid and tin second hand.
So, here was a man – Harry – who had misled all his friends for years about who he was and what he did. He also managed to completely take in the woman he lived with, had a child with and was planning to marry. Had he not had an affair, resulting in some phone calls that made Candy suspicious and prompted her in turn to go through his things, he’d have got away with it a sight longer.
His success was partly down to the fact that we had no reason to doubt him, especially since his missus believed him, too, and supported him in everything he said, and partly down to the fact that he completely lived the fantasy, he absolutely believed his lies himself. At the time Joel worked as a civilian at Catterick army camp and dealt with military personnel on a daily basis. He was pretty well versed in custom and protocol and in the ideal spot to check anything out that had a false ring to it. Harry regaled us with stories about his time in active service and never put a foot wrong. But sooner or later, it all had to come crashing down.
*The names have been changed in this, but every other detail is the unembellished truth. If anything, I’ve left a load of stuff out of this account. The last I heard – admittedly a long time ago now – Harry was still telling army tales to anyone who would listen, including his son.
To what extent do you think the need for guilt is the motivating factor in crime?
Guilt is an intensely personal thing and I think some of us are predisposed to suffer it to an unnecessary degree. We’re born with ‘original guilt’, if you like. There are those who get a kick out of inducing it in others – my mother was a black belt in guilt-tripping (guilt-tripping me, anyway) and others seem to get a kick out of feeling guilty. (Did someone say ‘religion’?)
A few years back, I was involved in a car accident, after which I spent hours, days, feeling sick with guilt and worry, trying to work out what I had done wrong to cause it. What happened was a guy in a truck ran into the back of my car. He said he hadn’t seen me. Then it turned out he had lied about his name and insurance cover and the matter only got sorted out because the vehicle he was driving was rented and the company took it upon itself to accept responsibility.
Meantime, people said I should put in an insurance claim for injuries suffered. Whiplash, they reckoned, was a nice little earner. The thing was, while I ached from head to toe from the impact, I wasn’t actually injured. I was advised to claim anyway and to pretend. At least two of the people giving me this advice had themselves lied about injuries to gain compensation. As far as they were concerned, it was all part of the game, something that was expected both by insurers and drivers involved in accidents.
I didn’t claim. I felt it was dishonest, fraudulent. I would have felt guilty all over again. I was considered to be a bloody idiot for passing up the chance of a payout.
The people who had made fraudulent claims didn’t consider themselves to be criminals. They thought they were smart, savvy. They honestly didn’t believe they had done anything wrong.
Some years back I did some work with inmates at HMP Durham. I never asked why anyone was in there and they were under no obligation to say, although once we got to know each other a little, they often chose to tell me. I remember having a conversation with a guy who was in because he had run his small business illegally. He hadn’t kept records, declared income, paid tax … in fact, he reckoned tax payers were mugs. I asked what he was going to do when he got out. He told me he planned to start up in business again. I said that he surely would do things properly next time, to avoid going back to prison. Wasn’t it worth paying tax to be able to live as he pleased, go for a pint with his mates, eat dinner with the family? No, apparently it wasn’t. He planned to do exactly the same thing again.
A psychologist at the prison told me that one thing most of the inmates had in common was that they couldn’t foresee the consequences of their actions. They put their own gratification above all else and – even when they did things a ten year old could see would end in tears – were surprised when it all went wrong.
So to answer your question, yes, maybe some do, if guilt fulfils some sort of need. But most don’t. Quite simply, they don’t feel any guilt whatsoever, because they don’t believe they have done anything wrong.
Do you think England is in political crisis and if so when did it start?
I doubt there’s been a time in modern history when at least a proportion of the populace did not consider the country to be in political crisis. A lot of it has to do with whether your preferred party is in power or not. I did a happy dance when Labour won the election in 1997, whereas a then-colleague threw up his hands in horror, retired and moved to Spain.
Having said that, I think we’re all aware that times are pretty tough at the moment. I don’t know anyone who is having an easy time financially. Then again, I don’t know anyone who is especially wealthy. Bearing in mind we are being governed by people who enjoy what, by most people’s standards, amounts to considerable personal wealth (I’m thinking here of Cameron, Clegg and Osborne) one has to wonder what they feel they have in common with the people they represent. I shouldn’t think any of them has ever had to make a choice between paying the rent or buying food. As for dodging the milkman (not my finest hour) and trying to hide from the coalman (not an ex-colleague’s finest hour, especially since he tapped on the window and waved as she was mid-crawl from behind the settee to the living room door) I feel confident in saying those people are strangers to such pastimes.
I do think that decisions are being made now that will have a long-lasting detrimental effect on the country. Okay, so the coalition government have done a u-turn on some of their worst decisions as a direct result of the public outcry they provoked, but there are others that are still going through. Libraries are closing. Charities are losing funding and shutting up shop. Tuition fees are rising. I shouldn’t think that any of these things will make the slightest difference to Cameron, Clegg, Osborne and their families, though. They will impact most strongly upon those people in society least able to speak up and defend themselves.
I’ve been angry more often since the current government came to power than I can remember having been in quite some time. (Best not to get me started on the Big Society.) I fear to think how those people who voted for the Liberal Democrats must feel. If political crisis is measured in terms of what percentage of the population is angry at any one time, I think we have a serious problem. And whilst disaffection with the government existed before last May, it certainly got one hell of a boost following the last election.
Do you think crime fiction is traditionally conservative in its outlook and what ingredients would be necessary to write a socialist crime novel?
Focusing purely on UK fiction here, I think of it as being more class-based, but in broad terms that can perhaps be seen to translate into political differences. It certainly stretches the imagination to think that Jane Marple, Lord Peter Wimsey or Adam Dalgliesh were closet Communists. If we accept those characters as being typical of traditional mainstream crime fiction, then certainly the people feeling collars were toffs, although the people whose collars they felt could be toffs or scum, depending upon the storyline.
I think that as society has changed and class lines have been blurred, fiction has mirrored the transformation and so we have working class coppers and private eyes, who are even allowed on occasion to nick toffs. And of course there’s a wealth of crime fiction in which the authorities have only bit parts – the action belongs to the working class and the underclass. (I’m thinking Ray Banks, Allan Guthrie here.)
That’s the sort of crime fiction I find most exciting. I don’t know that politics enters into it, other than perhaps incidentally. Of course, what this may mean is that there’s an opening for someone to write something with a more overt political agenda. Any takers?
‘Gone Bad’ is told in an intimate almost confessional narrative style at times and it is also hard as nails crime writing. When you write do you feel you are drawing on a masculine side of your psyche or is it merely the shadow of what is perceived as the female psyche?
I was told some years ago that I write like a man. I’m not honestly sure what that means, but it was before I started writing crime fiction; in fact, it was on the strength of some poetry a friend read. I also apparently like ‘boys’ music’ and I’d rather go to a gig than a shoe shop, rather buy a book than a handbag. Maybe when you get beyond the lippie and frocks, my psyche is a bit butch.
Story ideas can be sparked by pretty much anything, but the writing doesn’t generally take off until I hear the voice in my head. That voice might be male, female, young or old, but it’s generally a strong voice and it nags at me until I start writing things down for it. Usually bad things. Whatever form it takes, that voice has to come from me, albeit some part of me that I don’t consciously acknowledge.
Taking into account the fact that women seem to have an appetite for writing and reading violent fiction, perhaps the whole ‘write like a man’ thing is a red herring. I believe that there is a rarely acknowledged darkness in the female psyche, perhaps the mirror of the more commonly recognised roles of carer and nurturer, wife and mother. It can be seen in folklore as the wicked stepmother, the witch in the gingerbread house, and although it seems generally to be considered a rare aberration, it’s there and it’s in all of us. Since women generally conceal that darkness in day to day living, it has to find other outlets and I suspect that may be what guides not only my hand when writing, but the hands of many other female writers, too.
How much research do you do for your stories and how important is it to you to get the details right?
I’ve been known to spend time checking out daft wee details, such as: ‘Was it possible to buy a black Ferrari with an automatic gearbox in 19whatever?’ I can’t remember the year now, but the answer was ‘yes’, so my character was allowed to drive one. (He was off his face at the time, so having an automatic box made things easier for him.)
However, as much as I value authenticity, it should never be allowed to get in the way of the story. I’ve read books that should be subtitled ‘How to …’, where the author has included every last detail about working in a widget factory or whatever it is, and those books were boring. The detailed knowledge that comes from research or experience should support a story, not dominate it.
So while I do research whatever I’m writing and I aim to get things broadly correct, I try not to get too bogged down in it. The kind of research the majority of us is able to conduct on a subject is unlikely to answer every question or supply every detail anyway. If 100 people read a story that features a journalist and 98 enjoy it, that’s a good story. If the two who didn’t enjoy it are journalists and the reason they didn’t is nothing to do with the plot, the characters or the writing style, but because ‘In my experience, the editor wouldn’t have done that’, then that’s just sad. That’s someone taking a deliberate decision not to enjoy something. Mind you, I’ve seen people like that at comedy gigs, staring stony-faced at the stage, dying to have a miserable time so they can moan about it later. Maybe those ‘experts’ who read a novel in full expectation of being able to nitpick over wee details that the majority of people wouldn’t even notice and which wouldn’t affect their enjoyment of the story should go read something else. I certainly wouldn’t read something I didn’t expect to enjoy any more than I would knowingly pick up a novel mired in factual detail.
I’ll give the last word on this one to Christopher Brookmyre: On the whole I am a great believer in the MSU Institute of Research, which stands for Making Shit Up. It’s more a question of just sounding authoritative than actually knowing anything. (Link to full interview here: http://www.brookmyre.co.uk/extras/interviews/writers-block-interview-2003/ )
I think it’s fair to say that attitude hasn’t harmed his career in any way. And if it’s good enough for Christopher Brookmyre ….
Thank you Julie for an engaging and perceptive interview.
Julie Lewthwaite links:
Gone Bad blog