Luca Veste is a novelist and the editor of the `Off the Record’ charity anthology series, which feature short stories from some of the top names in British and US fiction. His first novel, ‘Dead Gone’, will be released in January 2014, by the HarperCollins imprint Avon. He also has an E Book out this June. Luca met me at The Slaughterhouse where we talked about manipulation and enlightenment.
Tell us about Dead Gone.
Set in Liverpool, Dead Gone’ sees DI David Murphy and his partner, Laura Rossi, investigating the murder of a student from the local university. Attached to her body, is a letter detailing an infamous psychological experiment that has supposedly been carried out on the victim. Convinced at first that the murderer is someone close and known to the victim, Murphy dismisses the letter as a bid to throw them off the scent…until more bodies are found, each with their own letter attached. On the other side of the city, Rob Barker, an admin worker at the university, is dealing with his own loss. His partner has been missing for almost a year, with suspicion from all around her firmly pointed at him. As the two seemingly unconnected events collide, it becomes apparent Murphy is chasing a killer unlike any he’s faced before. One who kills to discover more about life…
Dead Gone is the first in a series featuring DI David Murphy. It’s part police procedural, part psychological thriller, genre wise. Mainly, for me, it’s about the psychology of death and grief, and how those two aspects of life affect people from both sides of a murder investigation. Plus, serial killer alert, so expect some blood and gory stuff.
Do you think it is possible to direct a person’s actions by manipulating their trauma?
(Puts Psychology student head back on) – I think it depends on the trauma and the person. I remember reading something last year on manipulation (may have been by the American psychologist George Simon but I’m not 100%) which argued that the desire to please that exists in so many people can be exploited, with the ‘manipulator’ using various methods to get the desired result from their victim. However, the manipulator needs to mask most of the methods, otherwise the manipulation doesn’t work. For example, instead of using overtly aggressive means, they would be more passive-aggressive. So, in essence, certain people could be manipulated using passive-aggressive behaviour, perhaps through traumatic events, to direct their responses to certain actions. But, that person could be immune to such things, and then in turn not be affected by that trauma. Yet, there is much evidence to suggest direct trauma can have profound effects on victims (you only have to look at the statistics of adult abusers who themselves were abused as children to see that in practise), but there isn’t a one size fits all answer in my opinion.
To get back to trauma though, and using ‘Dead Gone’ as an example, in the book there’s a woman locked in a basement. No outside contact, very little interaction with the person who put her there, and no light. Before being forced into that situation, she’s just a “normal” person. How that sort of traumatic ordeal changes her, becomes more apparent as the book goes on, but you’ll have to read it to see how far. How trauma affects people psychologically is an incredibly interesting field of study though. One person may be life destroying, whereas another person may not be affected by it at all. It reinforces the fact that we’re all different. We react to situations and events in subtly different ways. I suppose that’s what makes us such an interesting animal.
In considering isolation and how it affects people, to what extent do you think identity can be altered and engineered?
It’s a difficult one to answer this, as there are certain threads you could mention. I’ll pick out one instantly…Stockholm Syndrome. The result of being isolated can influence a kidnap victim to have strong personal feeling for their captor. There’s a case from the US (which is detailed excellently by Carla Norton along with the lead prosecutor Christine McGuire in a book called ‘Perfect Victim’ – http://www.amazon.co.uk/Perfect-Victim-ebook/dp/B0063HBMC4/ref=sr_1_1?s=digital-text&ie=UTF8&qid=1366044163&sr=1-1&keywords=the+perfect+victim), involving a husband and wife, Cameron and Janice Hooker, who kidnapped a teenager, hitch-hiking I think, and kept her captive for years. Cameron made her sign a contract, stating she was his “slave”. They isolated her so much, that they were able to take her on trips without being worried she’d runaway, or alert the police. They had successfully isolated her to the point where she saw no other reason for being than to be in there hold.
But, here’s an actual series of experiments carried out by another American psychologist called Dr Harry Harlow. In the sixties, he began experimenting in the field of isolation using monkeys. Over the course of many years, he would first partially, then totally isolate them in boxes, for weeks/months…even years. Sometimes from birth. He would take a monkey who had just been born, stick it in a box, provide food and water but no other interaction, and then see what happened when they were taken out. After a year, they would be severely psychologically disturbed from the experience, to the point where they couldn’t successfully re-integrate most of them into monkey society.
Identity is a tricky concept though. There’s the image you portray to people, and then there’s the person you are in your mind. Which is real? If we’re talking about altering someone’s identity, which identity would that be? You could just be altering it to the real person and not the persona they’ve demonstrated in public before isolation.
Is there a particular incident that has changed your life and influenced your writing?
Not one particular incident, I think, rather there’s a series of incidents that I could probably go back and say have influenced my writing. I’ve been obsessed with death for so long, that it’s no surprise to me that my first book deals with that subject, alongside the grief aspect. That’s not to say I’ve been surrounded by death my whole life, quite the contrary. My Grandad died when I was eleven, and I can barely remember that. Other than a few acquaintances over the years, and a my wife’s nan, I’ve been incredibly lucky in that I haven’t lost anyone in my close family. I’ve been to two funerals. One, was for someone I didn’t know, which deserves a story on its own for how I ended up there, and the other for the aforementioned “wife’s nan” more recently. It was at the latter of the two when I decided to get a bit more involved in the book world. I started the review and interview blog ‘Guilty Conscience’ a few days afterwards, which led to writing short stories, and then a novel.
One thing that runs through it all however, is an incident which happened when I was six, just about to turn seven. 28th June 1990. A friend and I were collecting football stickers for the Italia ’90 World Cup, and his Dad said he’d take us the shop to get some. I didn’t tell my Mum and Dad I was going, as it was just up the road. On the way there and back, we had to cross a pretty busy main road. We got a few packs of stickers each, walking back, around 7:30pm. It was one of those proper summer evenings you always remember having as a kid. I remember waiting to cross the road, just off the kerb, my mate to my left, and his Dad beside him. The next thing I remember, is waking up in an ambulance, a paramedic screaming at me to lie back down. Then, flash-forward to being in a hospital bed, my Nan (my Dad’s mum, so the Italian side) sobbing uncontrollably, saying over and over “He’s bleeding, he’s bleeding”. Then, nothing for days.
Turned out, I’d been hit by a learner driver, her driving instructor not paying enough attention to the road to see me, or that she was going a bit too fast. My left leg was wrapped around the front right tyre, my face smashing into the road. Fractured tibia and fibula, broken nose, severe eye injury, cuts and gashes in pretty much every part of my body. Two misaligned vertebrae in my lower back. Memory loss, skin grafts, and a four month stay in hospital.
I was lucky.
That’s pretty much stayed with me my whole life. It’s more than likely the cause of my OCD which set in when I was in my early teens, and has never gone away. Always had that feeling I’m living on borrowed time. It also lets me get into that mindset of the dark part of my writing quite easily as well. I just write about what’s going on in my head most days!
To what extent do you think OCD involves a missing filter that is meant to remove information deemed to be unnecessary or is it a heightened state of consciousness?
I’ve never really thought about the causes of OCD. I know there’s many different theories on how it begins, whether it’s a brain dysfunction, genetic, or psychodynamics. What I do find interesting, is the idea that people believe, and indeed I’ve heard many people say, that we’re all “a little bit OCD”. I think quite a few people have the compulsions part of OCD, but the obsessive part…I’d doubt it. The obsessive part of OCD can debilitating sometimes. I’ve spent hours, days even, locked in the same thought pattern over and over, convinced I’ve not carried out the right “thing”. That I’ve made a mistake and now something bad will happen, or if something bad has happened, that it’s my fault.
Regards the heightened state of consciousness, I don’t know. What I have noticed, is that I’m probably more aware of my environment than most people. Mainly because my compulsions include the exact way I should walk (left or right footing hitting certain marks on pavements for example), and also numbers. My patient agent, Phil Patterson, had to be constantly aware of the numbers when the book was being sent out to publishers in the UK. Now it’s gone to foreign publishers, he’s stopped telling how many it’s with, I think so he doesn’t have to worry about me saying “wait, don’t send it to them yet, otherwise it’ll be with an odd number and they’ll all say no!”. I hate odd numbers…evil little things.
My Dad has OCD, but has very different compulsions than me, so maybe there is something in the genetic argument. As I’ve said though, it’s not the compulsive part of OCD that characterises it really, it’s the obsessive thoughts. That’s the worst part of it. But, I’ve had it a long time, and thankfully only been through a few bouts of mild depressive episodes because of it, so I’ve been much more luckier than most who live with it.
What do you make of the E Book revolution?
I think it’s great. The more avenues into reading the better. I can see it plateauing, despite what some might say, into maybe a 30-40% share (the market for ebooks has slowed more recently to around 25-30% of the total), but that’s still a healthy amount. There have been some great stories about self-publishing successes, which is always good to read. The likes of Mel Sherratt, Louise Voss and Mark Edwards, and Mark Sennen have all had excellent success stories in the past year or so, and I’m really happy for them. Books discovered that may not have found an audience otherwise. They’re still few and far between when compared to the whole however, so I don’t buy into the whole “self-publishing is the only way” argument whatsoever. Also, those successes seem to move into traditional publishing eventually. So, there’s room for both to flourish. The massive deals being given to self-publishers suggest that traditional publishers see the worth in those books, which is creating more opportunities for writers to move forward. I expect that’ll slow eventually as well.
I do however think there’s a number of self-publishers who need to be advised more. The importance of editing needs to be drummed home a fair bit. Not just in terms of spelling and grammar, but also in plot and story. I’ve read many self-published books and become more aware of a feeling that some are being rushed out, in order to capitalise on the seemingly unending gravy train. I’d prefer quality over quantity becoming key. As much as people say ‘don’t judge a book by its cover’ I think many readers do actually take notice of unprofessional looking covers.
Personally, I prefer print still, as many do. But ebooks are useful for certain situations, and I honestly believe ebooks and print can live side by side quite comfortably.
The Age of Enlightenment emphasised reason and still today we place great confidence in the mind. Do you think reliance on the mind indicates control or lack of it given the disposition towards the irrational in human history and behaviour?
Isn’t the irrationality of humans what marks us out as different? Hasn’t irrationality led us to where we are now? I’d argue the lack of control over our own minds is what has led humans to progress to the point we have. If we were rational beings, we’d only be interested in the basics of sustenance. Food, water, procreation. We’ve added to those basics over time to include so much more, and it’s our more developed minds which have created this need for more. Love, entertainment, friendship, satisfaction, etc. Language obviously plays a major role in all of this.
I’d argue a society which places more basis on scientific thought, scepticism and intellectuality shows a remarkable sense of self advancement. It would be easier as a society to rely on that which needs no explanation. Religion and superstition have long been said to be evidence of beliefs without the need for evidence. At a point in our history, we’ve seen a gradual rejection of that paradigm, leading to the society we see around us today; one in a state of flux, changing before our very eyes. Albeit far too slowly in some respects (same sex marriage, equal rights).
It’s our minds which separate us from the other animals. In some ways, yes, the reliance on it indicates control – we’ve organised ourselves in somewhat of a collective, all striving to move ever forwards (although the second law of thermodynamics would have something to say about what that leads to) – whereas our irrationality has meant that human advancement has led us to discover things unimaginable to people only a short period of time ago. Ask someone a 100 years ago if we needed some of the technological stuff we have today, or whether it would be better to spend that money on feeding those dying of hunger in the third world. Irrational to create VHS, then Laser Disc, then DVD, then BluRay, sure. Could we have done both things, maybe. Not all advancements make sense, but I’d argue as a global society, in many ways we’re much more advanced since the Age of Enlightenment and I think overall it’s a good thing.
Graham Greene wrote, ‘There is a splinter of ice in the heart of a writer.’ What do you make of his observation?
The act of creating fiction, and I’ll narrow this down to crime fiction as I think this statement arguably relates to that genre more than any else, I feel does require a writer to be able to set aside a “normal” reaction to certain things and be able to dispassionately choose the correct course for there story. I think a readers reaction to a horrific event would be much different to a writers, and they may even be surprised or even disgusted by a writers ability to look at a real-life event, for example, and find inspiration for a story/novel. My wife is an avid reader, but resolutely avoids crime/horror, and reads much lighter novels, romance, etc. But she has asked many questions of mine (and indeed has heard me say under my breath “maybe I should take out his eyes when he’s concious”, causing many sideways looks and one eye open slumbers) and has repeatedly said she doesn’t understand how I can write about such things. That shows the difference between those of us with the sliver of ice, to those who don’t.
However, where I’d set an end-point to Greene’s statement, is that the best stories, for me, are ones in which as a reader you can see a writer has a relationship with their characters. To write about tragedies does indeed take a “splinter of ice” to disassociate from the real, but to then write dispassionately…I think a reader can tell when a writer does that. So, in some ways, a writer must compensate by caring more about what happens to their characters than a reader may. Here’s an example – Steve Mosby, one of the most underrated writers working in the UK presently (seriously, I mention his name constantly because I honestly believe he’s the best UK author around – he is *that* good), used the murders which occurred in Dnepropetrovsk, Ukraine as inspiration. Anyone unfamiliar with the case may want to Google that one. Done? Good. Not nice where they? This case is one of the most repulsive and horrific you’re likely to read, with the added horror of one of the murders filmed and available to watch on the internet (don’t do it). Mosby is a well known bleeding heart liberal, yet still had that sliver of ice to take that case and let it inspire him. However, he then has the innate ability to find the right way in which to present that story, so the reader isn’t left disgusted and appalled, but satisfied. And it’s down to the way he writes about his characters. He can write some of the most difficult to read, explicit, scenes in crime fiction, yet not make them exploitative. That’s what is key for me. It’s easy to write gory murders, to try and one-up the last gory murder you read in crime fiction. What’s more difficult is to make the reader actually care that the ‘gory murder’ is happening to a character. That for me requires more warmth in the heart than ice.
How do you think traditional publishing views the online world?
Traditional publishing is now firmly ensconced in the online world. For the most part anyway. There’s still some things they could do better, of course, and they did react slower than others in recognising the growth of the online, and the shift readers were making to become closer to writers through social media. I think it’s understandable in some respects. The old paradigm of publishing lasted so long, and worked for them so well, that to suddenly switch tracks must have caught them by surprise. However, they’re multi-billion pound businesses for a reason, and they’ve soon caught up. So, I think they view it as just part of the publishing world now.
My own publisher Avon, which is an imprint of HarperCollins, is embracing the online in a exciting way. They’ve stolen the march on most of other publishers with regards to ebook sales, and are always finding new ways of getting books into the hands of readers. They’ve had some great successes recently in the crime genre, with Neil White, Paul Finch, and Alex Walters all doing extraordinary things in ebook sales. So, I’m obviously very pleased to be joining the group, and hopefully ‘Dead Gone’ can keep up with the others!
What advice would you give to yourself as a younger man?
Well, I’m 29 (30 in August), so I still consider myself a young man! Well…I did. Then I went to Uni as a mature student. Ten years on the vast majority of students there! You suddenly feel every single moment of those years when surrounded by the bright eyes of youth.
I’ve been married six years, have two daughters, and the face of a much older man. I’ve already been on medication for high blood pressure, suffered other minor medical ailments, and was almost killed aged six, after being hit by a car. I feel much, much older.
What would I tell younger me? Only a few things really. Maybe, try writing a bit sooner. I started writing at age 27. Had neither the will, nor inclination to ever believe I could write previous to that point. Even then, I only wrote a story because Charlie Williams dared me to. So, yeah, I’d probably should have worked out sooner that writing would open up a new and exciting chapter in my life.
I’d tell teenage me that anger isn’t always the answer. That no one likes a smart arse. Even if everyone else is wrong, and you’re right.
Don’t work in that pizza place. £2 an hour is just not worth the hassle of knowing what goes on behind the counter.
Don’t spend a year eating McDonald’s five times a week. You’ll put four stone on in weight, and never be able to shift it. You’ll go from playing right wing to goalkeeper for a Sunday League team. And no one likes goalkeepers.
Eight year old me…it doesn’t matter that she’s gone. You’ll get a new mum soon. And twenty years heals a lot of wounds. You’ll have two mums that would do anything for you.
And finally, pay attention. Do your *actual* best in school, because you could have done so much better. And not be ten years (which feels like thirty) older than everyone in Uni.
Thank you Luca for an insightful and versatile interview.