Nigel Bird writes great crime fiction. It is stylish, dark, witty and well plotted and it packs a punch. Go to A Twist Of Noir and read one of his stories. He’s in the Best Of British Crime Stories and he’s working on a novel. He blogs at Sea Minor, where writers interview themselves, a brilliant concept.
He met me at The Slaughterhouse where we talked about crime writing and gambling.
Scroll to the end of the interview for more links to Nigel’s work.
Does injustice anger you and motivate you?
Thinking back to being a kid and having chips for tea, me and my siblings used to scrutinise the piles on each other’s plates. If I got the most I’d keep my views to myself, tuck in and try and get as many down as I could before the challenges came. When anyone else had more, there was hell to pay. I’ve not changed much and still love chips.
Justice, of course, is a relative term. One man’s meat is another man’s poisson. It’s a shifting, changeable mass that’s difficult to navigate.
Global, governmental, judicial or social injustices I tend to rationalise. As such they might frustrate and anger me but don’t often drive me crazy.
It’s the little things that really get under my skin. Speeding motorists, pushing into queues, the fact that at work only 5% of the staff seem able to empty a dishwasher even though 100% probably own one. The fact that it can all seem so bloody unfair. Stretch that a bit further to grossly imbalanced conflicts such as adult/child or group/individual and the temperature of my blood is likely to rise. Sometimes the blood over-boils, but not as often as it once did – I guess that’s called wising up.
My chosen career (my vocation) is where I try to redress most of the injustices I perceive on a practical level. I reckon it’s a lot to do with the fact that some of my teachers were barbarians and that I wanted to change the experience of others. Being a Support For Learning Teacher is a bit like taking on the outweighed side of the scales and pulling like hell to try and lessen the difference. It hurts sometimes, is exhausting, but my fingers are still clinging to the balancing pan.
I’m sure my reactions to injustices are there to be seen in my writing. I guess I’ve seen things from lots of different angles. I’ve been the victim and the bully; the out of control, crazy lunatic and the voice of reason; attacker and protector; pupil and teacher; I’ve let it out, kept it in and let it depress the hell out of me.
Anger and motivate? Yes, sometimes.
Do you think that soft criminality is linked to deprivation and severe criminality is linked to pathology?
I saw a news report this morning suggesting that the more mothers smoke while carrying a baby, the more likely it is that they’ll end up in prison.
I don’t buy that and to the question I’d say no and no.
Which crime writers do you admire the most and why?
The first answer is easy.
There are a variety of reasons behind that. I’ll try and list as many as I can.
First of all, his writing style is superb. He’s extremely efficient with his language, throws the hardest of punches with seemingly minimal effort and keeps me as a reader hanging on for dear life.
I admire him for the effort he put in to get published in the first place.
I enjoy his modesty about his achievements.
In his role as an agent he looks after and helps place the work of his stable of talented writers without blowing his own trumpet. He works with a bunch of extremely talented folk and I’d bet a lot that they’d all feel indebted to him in some way.
On a personal level, I have seen how he’ll go out of his way to encourage, foster and support ‘new’ writers like myself.
He knows the industry for what it is and holds more wisdom about it than most.
And he’s recently put his pride on the line by taking a Masters (I think) course in writing. No playing safe for Allan.
He’s straight and balanced, is prepared to vary his style, is aware of his audience, uses character to drive his novels and is an all round nice guy.
Next on the list is a group of writers whom I’m only going to refer to as a collective. They exist not only to write but to promote the genre and the people who are creating within it. They’re the editors and producers of magazines, e-books, blogs, anthologies, competitions and on-line publications.
I know from my own experience of 5 years in producing ‘The Rue Bella’ magazine that it’s bloody hard work, vastly time-consuming, sometimes expensive and not always fully appreciated from those who benefit (or don’t).
Without the blood and sweat of these guys, there’d be nowhere to put our work, would be no grass-roots, little outlet for emerging talent.
You know who I’m talking about. I’ll not name them because I don’t know enough, but they’re the guys behind Discount Noir, Needle, Crime Factory, Thuglit (RIP), Pulp Metal, Beat To A Pulp, A Twist Of Noir, The Watery Grave, Spinetingler, Plots With Guns, Thrillers Killers and Chillers et al (you know who you are – I could go on and on if I were to do my homework and if I had a better memory, but if you’re not on the list and feel you should be, please don’t be offended and take my thanks). Without your efforts the world of crime-writing would be a poorer place.
In some cases I have benefited personally and owe a special appreciation. I’d also like to thank those who rejected me for their efforts – no part of the work is easy.
Other writers? Georges Simenon for his prolific yet brilliant output; the Cains, Chandlers and Hammetts of this world who set a torch to noir and detective fiction; all those at the bottom of the food chain (like myself) who keep on making the effort even when the lights have been turned out; the friends I’ve made; those who offer constructive criticisms to take others forward; Maxim Jakubowski who seems to have been around for ever and to never have stopped; and everyone involved in producing The Wire.
Do you think British crime writing still has a distinctive flavour and if so what is it?
I’ve spent days thinking about this one and I’m afraid I’ve not come up with much.
I can say that I love British crime, but also that I tend to read more books from America – the ratio would be pretty poor, really, so maybe I need to be more careful in my selections.
Yes, I think there is a flavour to British crime-writing, but it remains so broad that it’s difficult to generalise. For me it has a taste – earthy, clay soil or grimy industrial city air. It has a sense of claustrophobia in many ways, perhaps stemming from an island mentality. There’s often a really strong sense of place, which I love. There are the subtleties of the class system that come into play. Use of sayings, local dialect and slang is extremely colourful. There are many sub-cultures to choose from and there’s often an uneasy peace between them that gives plenty of source material for conflict.
Alcohol and pubs feature to add splashes and shades. Character is strong. The fact that there’s a gun-free culture here means authors need to be inventive about their chosen weaponry. There’s a huge amount of history to delve into. And humour – humour lurks or permeates or is thrown around in banter in ways I appreciate. It’s nice to find yourself bursting into laughter at the most difficult of moments.
Whatever the flavour is, I like it a lot.
Are you a follower of Bacchus and what are your strangest ruminations?
I followed Bacchus wherever I could for a while. You might say I was a stalker of his. I spent much of my adulthood under the influence of something or other and I loved it.
I’m a fairly uptight kind of person, though outwardly appearance may suggest otherwise. I was, and to a lesser extent still am, cursed by shyness. I worry a lot about myself and those I care about. Using substances was always a great release from those burdens, like a change of skin or an illusion of liberation. Everything I tried seemed to agree with me and I thought I was lucky.
A particular favourite among my evenings was at the Glastonbury Festival, lying back on the grass and watching the clouds go by. They morphed into Marilyn Monroe, then great men with beards, then numbers; it was like the best of private shows and I’ll never forget it.
But there was a flipside, illustrated by the frantic searching of the floorboards to see if there was anything between the cracks that would go with a roll of tobacco.
Now those days have gone.
I became a father for the first time just over 7 years ago now. That was probably the beginning of the richest period of my life. I’ve been further blessed by the arrival of another girl and boy since then and it’s only got better. Problem was I also have (had?) a self-destructive streak. My drinking and smoking got worse and my gambling addiction was reborn.
First time I knew that I had a problem again was when I’d blown almost a month’s wages in three calendar months just by betting on the Olympics. I’d have a couple of quid on practically anything (including synchronised swimming, I kid you not) and it just went mad.
I went along to Gamblers’ Anonymous and it felt good. I went again and it was the same. I didn’t go a third time. The message was clear – I had to give up – and I didn’t need the meetings to keep that at the front of my mind.
After that, giving up became second nature. I stopped drinking and then smoking in fairly quick succession.
At the end of last year, I got hold of some very good gear. It was like I’d never been away. Smoked myself senseless (literally). I also fell into another of my serious depressions and it was back on the medication for me.
6 years of group psycho-therapy have supported me all the way. Sometimes I remember to thank my group for what they do for me.
I don’t thank my family enough for just being there and I’ll try and put that right as soon as we all wake up in the morning.
The biggest worry I had about giving up intoxicants was that I’d lose my muse. Funny thing is, it’s been the absolute opposite. By facing life as it is, I’ve been treating writing as a craft and a commitment and a discipline in a way I’d never have been able to manage in the early days.
My ruminations? I guess they become my stories when I’m lucky, so they’re out there on public display.
Many authors have had addictive tendencies. Do you think that addiction simply goes into other areas when a substance or habit is removed?
There’s another great question.
I think that addictive personality traits are fairly common and, yes, I do think those who have them need to find new channels when others are closed off – picture water being shunted around irrigation canals.
My own addictive traits are also defined as obsessive-compulsive disorder. It sounds a lot worse than it is, really. Mainly I get stuck into patterns of thought and find it almost impossible to get out of them. It might just as easily be defined as ‘scratched record syndrome of the internal voice.’
There’s a plus side to all of this. Addictions, obsessions and compulsions can be a curse as is pretty obvious, but they can also be a great blessing. Another way of describing them could be as determination or doggedness. Mine is now channelled into writing and into its peripheral links. I can think about stories, write them, blog, trawl the internet, submit work in a way that after hard days of teaching and parenting would seem insane – to me it’s just normal.
Where I have to catch myself is when reacting to enthusiasm or on pure emotion – sending off work when it’s only half-baked, forgetting to spell-check or to attach or when making a careless mistake.
I also need to be careful that I don’t run myself into the ground.
It all gives me a drive. That’s another place I need to be careful. The drive that told me I was going to win on the horses or that there’d be no down after a big night or that I was about to win the National Poetry Competition is the same one that tells me I’m going to publish a novel one day and I never really managed to leave the bookies ahead. Maybe I should add delusion to my list.
To counter the bleakness that appears to be seeping out here, there are a couple of things I need to add.
Having my wife and children close means more to me than anything and brings more happiness and safety to the world than I ever could have imagined. I know and have known truly amazing people and feel their friendship and warmth whenever we’re in touch. And I’ve found myself, for the first time in many years, within a community of like minded and supportive people whom I trust, admire, respect and care about, that being the crime-writing community.
The best part about all of that last paragraph is that as long as I stay as I am (and I think that will be for the rest of my life) I’m not likely to go bashing the hell out of what I have, to smash it all to pieces as if I couldn’t bear to be happy. Not any more.
Do you think the unwelcome thoughts OCD sufferers experience are the thoughts of others?
In short, I have no idea.
I believe there’s obsession in everyone to greater or lesser degrees.
Judging by the volume of anti-depressants that are pumped out of pharmaceutical factories every year, I’d have to say that many must experience similar thoughts and may also have them whirling round their heads for extended periods.
Another indicator might be the popularity of crime fiction in general. Readers seem to like to look into the minds of those obsessed with things that lead them to committing crimes or those obsessed by solving them.
Many gamblers have experienced moments of telepathy at the table. What do you believe this is caused by?
Mainly I think it’s an issue of delusion meeting probability.
For a while the horses were my favourite subject. In fact, outside of teaching, it was my only subject. I remember falling head over heals for a girl once, sitting on her balcony and sipping wine only to realise I had nothing to say. The only things popping into my head were horses and races. One night, just after realising that I needed to branch out if I were to win her affections, I swerved from the door to the bookies and bought myself and Indian meal instead. It tasted great. There was no happy ending with the girl, though – she thought I was lovely and kind etc etc, but we were never going to be a couple.
Anyway, the point I was going to make was related to my choices of horses, not women.
Generally I’m a rational guy. I knew that studying the form and statistics was the way to go. Problem was I tended to chose by names or the colours worn, gut feelings and coincidence. I even tried dangling crystals and ripping up the names of horses to put under my pillow overnight and see if they’d invade my sub-conscious.
You see, to gamble on anything you have to be under the impression that you are probably going to win. It’s no accident that in the poorest towns there are the most bookmakers’ shops per head or that the queue for lottery tickets lengthens when times are hard. It’s about hope, and as the Count Of Monte Cristo said, hope is something we must hold onto.
And that’s the delusion. That a gambler is going to be lifted out of difficulty by a divine intervention of sorts, that they are special, have suffered enough and must be the chosen one that day or the next week or eventually.
The probability comes in later. Sometimes, when picking horses with a crystal, I’d win. I might have picked 10 that day in the same way, but the one that won, now that was fate. It’s like the chimp, typewriter and Shakespeare thing. Sooner or later you’re going to come out on top, but mostly you’re not.
Isn’t that an element at the core of noir fiction, too? Hope and delusion meet real-life outcomes.
But I did have a couple of nice moments.
Driving down from London to Preston, I’d been listening to Ride The Tiger by the Boo Radleys. I switched it off and on the radio there was a programme about tigers. I changed the channel and there was a summary on golfers for some Open or other, including the name of Tiger Woods. It was fate, I thought, put on a tenner, was backing a man I’d never heard of to win his first major and he blew everyone away.
Another time I had a dream about a race, woke up remembering the first and second. Next day I saw the two together, big field and big prices, put on a forecast (first and second) bet that stood to win me thousands. I could hardly believe it that the two pulled ahead of the rest of the field and I could have jumped off a bridge when they came in the wrong way round.
It was an if only moment, ‘if only I’d reversed the bet…’. I used to live in ‘if only’, which was essentially a good way to beat myself hard every time things went wrong.
Nowadays, I try to remember it’s about hard work, letting go when things go wrong and rolling with the punches.
It’s never stopped me hoping though.
The other day I heard a writer tell a group of young children that writing was really daydreaming. I guess that’s partly right.
As a writer delving into the shadows it shows something of what runs around my brain. The fact that I keep at it also tells of the hope – yeah it’ll happen for me one day. What I have to hold close now is that in many ways it already has.
And there I was, going to leave it at delusion and probability.
Tell us about your novel.
I’ve been writing my novel on and off for most of this year.
In it can be found the characters from my short story ‘An Arm And A Leg’ (published in ‘Crimespree’ and soon to be out in the ‘Best Of British Crime Stories’ anthology).
Carlo Salvino gets about in his wheelchair now that he only has one arm and one leg. His missions are to get revenge on the men who took his limbs and to win back Kylie and his son.
Kris and Mikey Ramsay are putting together an event called the ‘Scottish Open’, an all-comers tournament for fighting dogs and their owners.
The MacMerry brothers fancy their chances in the tournament and quietly go about their business.
The Hook family try their damndest to cope with the arrival of the baby born to teenager Kylie. It’s not something they find easy.
Kylie’s delinquent brother finds out about the Ramsay’s tournament and runs off with the prize-money causing all hell to break loose in Tranent.
What follows is kidnapping, torture, murder and the usual kind of mayhem.
Also involved are under-cover police officer Smokey Arbroath, his wife (a plastic surgeon specialising in injuries caused by dogs) and a drug dealer who peddles his wares from an ice cream van.
In the main it’s pretty dark, but there are bursts of humour that appear from time to time, or at least there are moments that I find very funny.
I’m 50,000 words in and have another 10,000 to go.
I’ve known the barest bones of the story since the beginning and now I’m getting excited at the way the characters are playing things out. It’s like they’re telling me the story rather than me creating them and that’s a great feeling.
I’m enjoying them all, even the ones I should really be disturbed by.
The hardest part of writing it is the length.
I don’t struggle with short pieces because I can keep the whole thing in my head at any given time. I can let things ferment until they’re ready and at that point I write and let things go wherever they happens to go. All that remains is the vital business of editing and it’s done.
When I try to tackle a novel, I have difficulties seeing the whole thing. It’s easy for me to tie myself into knots.
I also find it hard to use chapters effectively – some might find it reads a little too much like a string of short-stories for their taste and, even though I’m aware of it, I’m not sure I’ve managed to overcome that yet. I tend to use the end of the chapter as a full-stop rather than as a cliff-hanger.
I’ve also stripped out everything back to the bone and now I’ve realised that I’m going to have to put a bit of flesh back on to give a sense of place and point.
Also difficult is writing after a day’s teaching in a difficult environment and with the remainder of my time looking after my three children. By the time I settle down I’m already spent physically, mentally and emotionally.
That’s the reason I’d like to have this published – to give me a real burst of confidence and to maybe give me just enough money to get some time for writing in daylight hours when I’m fresh. It’s a long-shot, but I was always one to back the outsider.
So what will you do if the novel isn’t published?
If my novel isn’t published after I’ve send it round agents and publishers once, I’ll take into account any feedback I get and see if I can answer the points. Once that’s done I’ll send it out again.
If I still can’t find any takers I’ll probably think about self-publishing and probably veer away from that. I do think that agents and publishers generally do a pretty good job as fiction’s gate-keepers (sure, they could be more ambitious and risk-taking, but who couldn’t?) and if I can’t get by them I’ll just have to assume that I just wasn’t good enough on this occasion.
As soon as I realise it’s doomed to live in my head and on my work laptop only, I’ll carry on writing stories until the next idea for a novel hits. When it does I’ll be back on the novel-writing job.
The other thing I’d do next time round is to keep things simpler. I’m not exactly sure how that can be done, but maybe by using only one point of view and sticking to one or two main objectives that I can mess up for the leading character I’ll have a more straightforward piece on my hands.
If that doesn’t work, I’ll do the same things again.
I’ll be dusting myself off until I’m fit for nought but dust myself.
Thank you Nigel for giving an honest and memorable interview.
Some particularly good Bird here: