Richard Jay Parker author of the chilling and brilliant ‘Stop Me’ has been a professional TV writer for twenty-two years. He has been head writer and script editor of the BBC. He has also produced a number of TV shows before deciding that he preferred drinking with writers to listening to the incessant demands of whingeing performers.
Having read ‘Stop Me’ I can tell you it is a brilliant piece of tightly controlled crime writing. It is also unusual in that it is told from the victim’s perspective. Richard Jay Parker writes with the experience of a scriptwriter and that means the story tells itself with ease. It has been shortlisted for the Crime Writers Association John Creasey (New Blood) Dagger Award 2010. I hope it wins.
If you want to know what it’s about click the play button.
Richard met me at The Slaughterhouse where we talked about psychopathology and kidnapping.
To what extent do you think that extreme killing is related to the psychopathology of sexuality?
This question is very relevant to discussions I’ve had on various panels re violence written by women. There are a lot of best-selling crime and thriller books out there written by women and a great deal of them contain extreme violence. So extreme, in some cases, that critics and readers are speculating whether women write more potent and explicit scenes of violence than men. Whether this is a product of women’s innate potential for creative violence or simply a desire to up the ante to get their work noticed is eminently debatable. Writers of both sexes certainly use extreme violence to generate controversy and sales. Every author handles violence within the context of their plot in different ways but there does seem to be one significant difference between male and female fictional violence – the aftermath. In male writing the violence is often (though not always) prurient with little of its consequences – emotional or physical – registering beyond the bare minimum required for the plot. In a large proportion of books written by female writers the aftermath of a violent event has more implications. So sex and extreme violence in literature coincide – wham bam for men and a desire to hold onto its significance afterward for women.
How do you think thriller writing distinguishes itself from crime writing?
This is another subject that I’ve debated publicly with other writers. Thriller used to mean Alistair MacLean but I think the term evokes different fiction now. There’s certainly authors that you associate with each genre. Colin Dexter – crime. Harlan Coben – thriller. There’s a lot of crossover. Both can feature crimes and both can be thrilling. I wonder how librarians categorise them when there’s a section for each. Where do I display SILENCE OF THE LAMBS? There are always exceptions to the rule but the best distinction that we’ve come up with is that crime begins with a significant event and a thriller leads to one. Of course, there’s always plenty of events throughout each type of plot but a crime novel usually opens with a murder and the rest of the story revolves around working out who perpetrated it (and maybe the others that follow) and bringing them to justice. A story also seems to become categorised as a thriller when it’s international. Does that make crime parochial? Maybe. A lot of thrillers are a race against time – an attempt to stop an event or meet a deadline. That’s certainly true of a large proportion of contemporary thrillers. Zoe Sharp came up with that answer and I think it’s the nearest to a definition we’ve ever got. Now how about the cosy crime thriller mystery category?
If the race against time has become part of the thriller genre to what extent is that race tied into economic factors in real life and how many of those factors can the thriller genre expose?
I think people’s lives are generally lived at a much faster pace now. We have higher – and sometimes unrealistic- expectations of how much we can fit into a day and I think this is reflected in the material we read. Like movies successful contemporary thriller novels cut to the chase. I can’t imagine a book like ROGUE MALE being published now. It’s a great book but I think its pace would now be considered too leisurely. The majority of thriller readers need excitement from page one. I think it’s a product of having so much available – with downloadable books I think some readers have less patience and itch to access something else if their current book doesn’t hook them immediately. It’s certainly a challenge for writers.
While comments are made about crime writing being formulaic, much of the best fiction in the world is coming out of the genre. Do you think that The Booker Prize has its own formula?
I guess a lot of literary awards – like movie awards – traditionally shy away from what’s popular. Booker Prize novels don’t seem to be widely read until they’ve won. That seems to be their formula. It’s always struck me as a strange attitude to issuing awards. If something is popular it doesn’t automatically mean it has literary merit but it shouldn’t guarantee its exclusion. This often seems to be the case. There’s a reason that everyone is reading Larsson although I think that will more or less assure his trilogy won’t make it onto a lot of literary short lists. There are some fantastic and intelligent thriller writers out there whose work deserves equal consideration to Booker prize winners. As writers within one of the most popular genres, however, they can at least console themselves with healthy sales and recognition within crime and thriller circles. The Dagger Awards seem to be getting higher profile each year.
Tell us about ‘Stop Me’.
Nobody was more surprised than me that STOP ME was short listed for a CWA Dagger Award in 2010. As a debut novelist it was great to have the profile of the book given such a significant boost through this and an earlier promo with WH Smith. I’m hearing from more and more readers as they hunt it out.
There’s something sinister about email chain letters – their provenance and their next destination. STOP ME begins with an email chain letter from the Vacation Killer. It describes a girl and must be forwarded. If it ends up back in the killer’s inbox he won’t slit her throat. Nobody takes it seriously until the jawbone of a prostitute is sent to the police. The missing prostitute fits the description in the email. But the real story of STOP ME is about Leo Sharpe and his journey to find his missing wife, Laura, the tenebrous world of Internet celebrity and his relationship with a man who claims to be her captor.
John R Bookwalter claims to be the Vacation Killer and runs a website based around this alleged delusion. He’s never left the state of Louisiana and the Vacation Killer has killed around the globe. He’s dismissed by the police as a crank but claims to have Laura. She disappeared in London and the Vacation Killer was suspected. However, her remains were never sent to the police and Leo wonders why – did the email get back to the Vacation Killer’s inbox?
But as everyone around Leo gives up on Laura ever being found Bookwalter is the only person talking about her in terms of her still being alive. A bizarre relationship ensues and Bookwalter comes up with the most plausible theory of how she was kidnapped.
Leo has to decide whether he should accept Bookwalter’s invitation to fly to New Orleans to find out if there’s any truth in what he’s saying. That’s what the title STOP ME refers to – more than the emails. It’s about being drawn submissively into something you know you shouldn’t. It’s a story with a major twist and Leo is led down a lot of dark alleys before he finds out what really happened to Laura.
Graham Greene said writers need to have a piece of ice in their hearts. What do you make of his observation?
I’ve never heard this quote before. Sound advice and not just for the creative process. Maybe it’s more applicable to a writer’s capacity for endurance – that it eases the process of rejection and an ability to kill your (creative) babies. A chamber of ice in your heart would certainly help during the whole agent/publisher quest. Writers have to care though – otherwise they wouldn’t create anything worthwhile.
Do you think abduction and kidnapping, especially where the victim is tortured and killed, throws light on the pathology of power and ownership not only in terms of the killer but also the victim and the victim’s relatives?
It’s probably the ultimate example of a person becoming a commodity. Calculating the value of someone’s life and the price of their safe return is fascinating territory. What value would you put on your own life? If you were related to a politician or wealthy family that would obviously make you worth a whole lot more – even if you were an unsuccessful human being on every level.
Incarceration removes not only your physical ability but your relevance as a person. You’re entirely at the mercy of your captor and the people who may be able to secure your release. It’s incredible how being tied to a chair can alter a person’s status in the world so instantly and obviously the captor’s attainment of power in such an easy way can lead to them wanting to explore that power through torment and physical torture.
In real life and in fiction we don’t often see the incarcerated instigate their own escape. They’re either murdered or rescued. Being kidnapped renders you and your family utterly powerless and very often this is the only agenda for the person who has taken you.
Do you think your time working as a script writer for TV has influenced the way you write novels?
Without a doubt. Writing novels is a very different discipline but I visualise much of what I write in the same way I would a script. I don’t deliberately set out to create something that would make a good TV show or movie but I’m still composing shots when I’m writing the action. It’s just the way my mind works. STOP ME is like a three act screenplay. It wasn’t deliberate, it just happened. But there are elements within it that certainly wouldn’t translate to the screen. I’d obviously love to dovetail my two passions and write a screenplay of one of my books (even a first draft before a studio drops me in favour of another writer) but I think every novelist knows how unlikely it is that, even with an option, they’ll ever see their work adapted.
Do you think that paranoia is at the root of extreme crime?
I think paranoia has always played an enormous part in creating gripping stories from Cold War era thrillers to contemporary novels that take new technology and twist it to generate a believable plot. Human paranoia feeds on the threat of the unknown from the activities of a new neighbour to global conspiracies. Paranoia is the engine that drives Leo Sharpe in STOP ME. Are the police still watching? Is his wife alive and imprisoned? Is the threat from the website he’s found a real one? So many people we meet every day are concealing something – whether it be a part of their past or a more significant secret. Stripping away the facade always makes for a good story.
So where’s the next book?
Have spent a good while getting book two right. I’m just finishing the rewrite process and hope to have something out there soon. As a new author I’m eager to build on what I did right in STOP ME without being repetitive. The new book is a bigger story and there’s that twist on a piece of technology that we’re all familiar with but has been perverted for evil. I’m exploring some new themes behind the story though and that’s an element that I want to perfect before anybody reads it.
Thank you Richard for giving a brilliant interview that should make everyone want to go out and buy ‘Stop Me’.
Additional Parker links:
‘Stop Me’ on Amazon where it’s 30% off with free delivery in the UK.
The Book Depository where overseas readers can get free worldwide shipping and 30% off.