Chris Nickson is a journalist and novelist. His reviews and features are published in print and online, notably with fRoots, Sing Out!, emusic.com, and allmusic.com. He’s also the author of The NPR Casual Listener’s Guide to World Music. Chris has also published 28 other non-fiction books, most of them quickie biographies, and has had a pair of one act plays staged in Seattle. His short fiction has appeared in several small magazines, and most recently in the anthology Criminal Tendencies. His novel The Broken Token was published by Creme de la Crime in 2010. His novel Come The Fear was published in August 2012. Chris is also the author of Solid Air – The Life of John Martyn.
Chris met me at The Slaughterhouse, where we talked about John Martyn and the E Book revolution.
What do you think made John Martyn such a unique talent?
Part of my love of John Martyn came from the circumstances in which I discovered his music. I was 18, finished with my A-levels, and going out with an interesting (and, in hindsight, probably damaged girl). Her father was an English professor, her mother a poet, and they had a wonderful music room, with grand piano, wall of sheet music and wonderful stereo. I was a budding musician and writer, fascinated, enthralled by all this. Lol – the girl’s name was Laura – took me into the music room and played me John’s Bless the Weather album. The sound was rich and full on an expensive stereo, the voice as luscious as a smoky tenor sax, the guitar style so different. I was hooked. I bought Solid Air when it came out and the addiction deepened. Then I was lucky enough to be at the concert that became his Live at Leeds album, and even had a signed copy of the LP (now long gone). From 71-79 he made some of the most magical, adventurous music around, outside genre, inventive and still beautiful. It was, and to me still is, music that sits outside time. But some part of it still evokes my 18-year-old self in that room with that girl.
Your new novel, Come the Fear, is published in the UK at the end of August, and is set in Leeds in the 1730s. Tell us about it and how you think historically crime has changed.
At heart, I’m not sure that crime has changed much over the centuries. Of course, there’s white collar crime these days, computer fraud, things that wouldn’t have been possible in the world that once was. But fraud has existed for hundreds of years, if not thousands, and crimes of violence and passion are as old as humankind.
In this country, especially, we have a history of drinking and violence going together, and a mob being incited by pamphlets and newspapers. What happened a few years ago with the Sun paedophile campaign was just history repeating itself, and the Saturday night binge drinkers and fights would have been recognised several centuries before, although they might have been deadlier more often then.
Schemers, cheaters, the greedy – there’s really nothing new under the sun. In general, the crimes in my books echo things are are here today. That’s quite deliberate. I like to make that connection to the here and now, while still making people believe they’re firmly in the past.
What do you make of the E Book revolution?
Much as I love the feel of a book and buy them with alarming regularity, as well as being a regular library user, I’m really in favour of the ebook revolution, and a revolution is most surely is. What’s astonished me most if how slow the publishers have been to react to it. There’s a strong analogy to be made with what home studios and being able to record on computer and the mp3 did to the music industry. The big companies had no idea how to react. Ebooks have been around a few years, long enough for the publishers to formulate a strategy, but they didn’t.
My novels come out on ebook. In fact, I have a mystery coming out with a company in the next few months that will be simultaneous ebook and audiobook, not in print, and my John Martyn was an ebook (although a hard copy is available via print on demand).
Perhaps the most interesting part of all this is the rise of self-publishing. That, too, has a parallel in the music world. Like bands and singers with mp3s, now anyone can publish a book. It’s democratised the business beyond belief. Of course, that doesn’t mean everyone should publish a book, by any means. So many self-published efforts are best life in desk drawers. But I have some friends on Twitter who’ve self-published and are excellent.
That said, I have serious doubts about the low pricing of so many ebooks on Amazon, all too often the self-published ones. A low promotional price for a short while is fine, but no one is done any favours by continued low pricing. The authors who self-publish want a level playing field, and that’s perfectly fair. But to keep it fair their books should be priced in parity with those from publishers. My little bugbear.
A corollary of that is the amount of self-promotion some authors indulge in on Twitter and Facebook – probably on Goodreads, too. Interaction is the best advertising, not endless links to be able to buy the book. Those people end up unfollowed by many.
But ebooks are the future, or at least one strand of it. And as libraries adopt them, we’re going to need to change the PRI model. Currently authors receive a small amount every time someone borrows one of their books from a library, but nothing for an ebook. As things shift, this will have to alter. The revolution, in this case at least, won’t be televised; it’ll be read.
Has music influenced your writing?
Absolutely. With the Richard Nottingham series the old folk ballads have been a great influence, as well as tunes and songs. So many of the ballads have travelled all around Europe, with variations in different countries (Denmark has a great collection of old ballads that are taught there as literature). They’re like pieces of wood that have been shaped and smoothed over the centuries by many hands, and my theory is that many of them have stayed in currency for a reason – perhaps, rurally, they sang “The Cruel Mother” if they knew a woman had committed infanticide. It was social castigation by peers without bringing in the law. In the Faroe Isles they dance the ballads, and if someone has done something wrong, they sing the ballad that’s closest to the crime and force the person to stay, arms linked in the circle as it’s sung and dance. That’s potent peer force.
The title of The Broken Token came from the broken token songs, where a couple split a coin or ring when they had to part, and bringing it together again on the man’s return was plighting their troth. Come the Fear is directly inspired by a ballad called Lucy Wan, and the famous folk song Black Jack Davey is in one of the books, as is the figure of the blind figure, emblematic in folk music. That leads in folklore, which is also important as a way of defining ourselves and our fears. But yes, music has always been important, and in my Seattle book, Emerald City, everything is set in the music scene before grunge broke out – my main character is a female music journalist.
Who are your literary influences?
I suppose that like everyone, I’m influenced to some degree by all the good writers I’ve read (and I realise good is very subjective). i’m a traditionalist in that I like a story to have a beginning, middle and end, however ambiguous that ending might be.
When younger, I loved Knut Hamsun’s work and read a lot of Scandinavian writers. I love Chandler, Hammett, Ross MacDonald as crime writers. Some of William Boyd, Peter Hoeg (since 2003, when I first went there, I’ve had a deep love of Danish music which has expanded into other areas of Danish culture and life).
Although I write about the 18th century I’m not a fan of its literature; I had to do Joseph Andrews at school and hated it, not do I care for the Victorians.
Someone who showed me the possibilities in writing historical crime is Candace Robb. Her Owen Archer series is set in 14th century York, but the character’s family and friends, his relationships, are very important, and it opened up a lot for me. She lives in Seattle but brings York and the period brilliantly alive. Weirdly, she and I have lived in two places at similar times but never met, although, via email, we’ve now becomes friends and I have great respect for her and a love of her work.
Of current mystery writers, I like Ian Rankin, Peter Robinson (his Inspector Banks series took a quantum leap partway through), Mark Billingham, Val McDermid – the usual suspects, really. I’ll gladly get their work out of the library and know I’ll enjoy it.
Joanne Harris has shown me that it’s possible to put magic in a book. Even if I might not do it, to know it can be there is wonderful.
The other big influence, I suppose, is a guy called Thom Atkinson, who’s won numerous awards for his plays and short stories. He lives in Cincinnati and we met almost 30 years ago, played in the same band and have remained close friends ever since. We’re close enough to give each other completely honest criticism, and I know whatever he suggests will improve my work. Track down his work, he’s worth it.
What are you working on now?
At the moment I’m going through the publisher’s edits for Emerald City, which is set in Seattle, and working on a new mystery which takes place in Leeds during the Civil War. I’m partway through the sixth Richard Nottingham book, currently titled Fair and Tender Ladies – I’m hoping to have a first draft finished by Christmas. And, of course, there are always CD reviews that have to be written…
What advice would you give to yourself as a younger man?
Don’t take the brown acid? Honestly, I’m not sure. Just keep on doing it and believe in yourself. Try not to get frustrated and don’t drink too much in the ’80s.
As I’m one who believes we’re the sum of all our experiences I wouldn’t want to miss out on any of them, good or bad, because that would change the balance. But, yes, one more thing: that Norwegian girl you’ll meet when you’re 20. Go for it.
Do you think criminals are a product of society?
You’ve lulled me into a false sense of security with the easy questions before moving on to the hard ones, haven’t you?
I don’t think it’s possible to say definitively one way or another on this. It’s a variation on the nature vs. nurture debate, really. In some cases the tendencies will be innate, within the people. I doubt that most serial killers are products of society; there’s something seriously twisted in them. However, many crimes of property probably do come society – read the reports on the riots last August to see, for instance. I think Plan B nailed it perfectly with “Ill Manors” (the song, not the movie), but really, it’s nothing new, any look back through history will tell you that. What worries me is the punishment meted out on the rioters – it’s almost Georgian in its severity. I have the impression that the magistrates would have given them seven years’ transportation or hanging if they could. All that does is breed more of the same anger. As long as society remains so uneven in its distribution of wealth, it’ll continue (and that’s a recurring theme in my books).
Who do you think is the greatest living crime novelist?
The greatest living crime novelist? That’s tough, and very subjective. If my arm’s twisted and I have to pick one, it’ll be Ian Rankin for his Rebus series, because he’s made crime fiction into something more popular. But Ruth Rendell definitely is in there, too.
And for the last question – How come you never made any real impact as a musician?
The simple fact is that I wasn’t good enough or distinctive enough. The bands were okay, with reasonable songs, and Harvey and the Larvae might have gone somewhere in another time or place. But solo? Did anyone need another Billy Bragg? No, didn’t think so…sticki with the writing, lad.
Thank you Chris for a perceptive and informative interview.
Download the first two chapters of Come The Fear from the publisher, Severn House
Look for the fifth Richard Nottingham book, At The Dying Of The Year, to be released 29 February, 2013. You can pre-order now in the UK at Amazon.
And if you need to catch up on books one through three, here are the buy links:
Book one: The Broken Token at Amazon US and UK
Book two: Cold Cruel Winter at Amazon US and UK
Book three: The Constant Lovers at Amazon US and UK