Interview: Damien Seaman with Tony Black
Damien: How did you get your publishing deal with Random House?
Tony: Long story short, it was all down to my agent's acumen and eye for the main chance ... the near ten years of flogging my bollocks off every spare moment, sacrificing my social life and prematurely aging myself over a keyboard might have played a bit part in it all, though. I say, might.
Damien: Paying For It features people trafficking and forced underage prostitution in Edinburgh. Pretty strong stuff. What drew you to this topic?
Tony: I don't think anything drew me to it; to be drawn to a subject like that you'd probably have to be an inmate of Peterheid, or at least have a reservation in the post. One of my reasons for tackling these issues, however, was the fact that -- and this is the strong stuff -- these things, or versions of them, are actually happening in Edinburgh right now. It seems like there's hardly a week goes by without the papers reporting on some foreign prostitution racket that's been unearthed in the city. So, yeah, unpalatable to look at but very definitely something we shouldn't be sweeping under the carpet.
Damien: What research did you do into Eastern European gangsters, people trafficking or prostitution?
Tony: Well, my father's family were originally from Eastern Europe, Lithuania to be precise, so I know something of what I speak/write, from first-hand accounts.
I had a wealth of handed down Lithi patter to draw on, and Zalinskas is my grandmother's maiden name so an outright appropriation there. The research was fairly sedentary apart from that ... the news, like I say, is full of this type of thing, has been for some time now. I didn't need to look too far beyond my own backyard.
Damien: Who or what was the inspiration behind protagonist Gus Dury? Where do his anger and desire for justice come from?
Tony: I've spent so much time in newsrooms listening to rabid old hacks foaming at the mouth about the state of the world, this, that, and the other, that I think their influence had to seep into Gus's character.
A lot of Gus's anger comes from his past, he’s had a tortuous upbringing, his father was a very cruel alcoholic, wife-beater and Gus was in the middle of it all. In adulthood he’s kind of lost the plot, his job’s fallen by the wayside, his wife’s left him … he’s got plenty to be pissed at.
The desire for justice is purely Gus's ranting at the system. He’s got the marbles to know he can’t change a bloody thing so the little issues get magnified and become bones of contention. When he takes on the case of Billy’s death it becomes like a monomania to him, it’s as if he thinks by righting one thing the rest won’t matter.
Damien: Gus is an alcoholic ex-reporter. You’re a teetotal newspaper reporter. Are these facts linked?
Tony: Hmnnn ... jeez, I can't see where you're going with this, Damo.
The stereotypical hack alky, I hate to break it to you, ain't me. I've had more than my fair share of nights on the piss, and mornings with my head feeling like Chewbacca had taken a dump in it, but then I met this beautiful, teetotal, vegetarian, fitness freak and my life -- and Christ, my health -- has been the better for it since. That was about ten years ago, and in case she's reading this I'll say, ten years exactly on August 13!
But, God I miss the Guinness sometimes. And kebabs ... less often. I do lapse, though, now and again.
Gus's alcoholism, I should point out for those who haven't read the book, isn't a bolt-on to his job or nationality either. He's one very messed-up dude, who is seeking solace in his painkiller of choice. Gus has had a fairly traumatic upbringing and his demons have grown up with him. Later in life he's suffering, quite how much he's actually suffered comes to the fore even more in the follow-up, GUTTED.
Damien: How did you develop Gus’s character? Did he arrive fully formed in your mind before you wrote Paying For It, or did he evolve as you wrote the book?
Tony: A bit of both. The very first book I wrote featured a similar character, who was also a bit of a loser and coincidentally called Gus; some of his traits surfaced in Gus Dury. But during the writing of PAYING FOR IT Gus came into his own, it was as if he was already out there and I was just recording him.
Damien: Do you see Gus as a hero or an anti-hero?
Tony: Very good question, can I be a cop out and say a bit of both.
Damien: The villains in Paying For It remind me of the larger-than-life villains in James Bond, from the Eastern European femme fatale to the cigar-smoking villain with a caged wolf in his office. Was any of this deliberate?
Tony: I can see where you’re coming from but, definitely not. I’ve never read a single Fleming book, and to be honest the whole Bond thing makes me cringe a bit, sorry Bond fans! Strangely enough, I’ve always wanted to like Bond films but never been able to sit through a single one … not even the uncrowned King of Scotland’s ones. Still, it’s a very flattering comparison, so I think I’ll shut up and just say, thank-you very much.
Damien: Do you pre-plot your novels or do you start with an idea and let the story go where it wants to take you?
Tony: I have an outline, and generally I will stick to it at the beginning, but usually I find the story changing as I go along; the characters go off in different directions and it gets impossible to stick to the original plan, so I change it.
Damien: As a practising journalist in Edinburgh, are there things you’ve seen or experienced on the job that you can’t write about?
Tony: God, yes. I would especially love to tell you about the time Debbie McGee put the phone down on me ... notice the missing 'Lovely' prefix.
Then there was the ... no, I better not.
Damien: What are the things that anger you most about the UK? Will any of them find their way into future Gus Dury adventures?
Tony: Many, many things. I lived in Australia for a few years and I loved the plain-speaking attitude, to get a bit wanky, the meritocracy of their society that just doesn't exist here. I’m getting a bit more positive though since Wee Eck [Alex Salmond of the Scottish National Party] took over in Scotland so I'm hopeful that might change soon.
You know, you're really asking the wrong person, Damien, because I am a whingeing bastard and could go on forever about the things that shit me to tears ... how about the rise of Daily Mail politics, Big Business's stranglehold on society, 1984-style surveillance, the castration of the media, the environment, the Iraq War ... and as for Shane-bloody-Ritchie possibly being in the new Minder remake ... don't even get me started!
And, yeah, all of the above could be crow-barred in to future Dury books … and probably will be.
Damien: What can you tell us about the next Gus Dury novel? Will any other key characters from Paying For It make a return appearance?
Tony: The next one's called GUTTED and it starts with Gus stumbling over the corpse of a black man on Corstorphine Hill. It picks up the story from where PAYING FOR IT left off, with Gus reluctantly seeking answers to another grisly crime ... though this time, it's himself he has to get off the hook, because obviously Lothian and Borders plod have quite an axe to grind over the last case Gus worked.
GUTTED is, sort of, an exploration of the power of globalised business to steamroller the little man. Basically, Gus gets embroiled in a pharmaceutical company's dodgy business practice of importing bush animals for experimentation. Along the way he has to tackle some Yardie gangs, dog-fighting rings, animal rights fanatics, and, of course, Lothian and Borders plod ... again.
And yep, Hod, Fitz, Mac and the woebegone Debs -- who has a dark secret she wants to reveal -- all make a reappearance ... along with one or two new faces.
Damien: What have you got against Lothian and Borders plod? They give you one too many parking tickets?
Tony: I don't have a car, anymore.
Damien: Reading the book, Ken Bruen and Andrew Vachss are obvious influences, but what is it that sets you apart in the hardboiled fiction market?
Tony: The Guvnor and Vachss are right at the top of my reading list, along with Irvine Welsh and a few more so those influences you've picked up are spot on.
I don't know what sets me apart, and I'd be an arrogant prick to speculate, but the word that keeps coming back and always surprises me is that I have 'heart' ... you're a great reader, what do you think?
Damien: The heart I see in the novel is in Gus’s anger, his passion and need to see justice done in a world where too many of us have made too many compromises to think we could succeed. Gus reminds us that even if you’re bound to fail, it’s the trying that counts: he’s our conscience. I also like the way that he picks up an urban family as he goes along. He really cares about people, and many of them respond in kind. That’s just heartwarming, pure and simple.
So who are your other major influences, and who are the up and coming writers whose work you look out for? Aside from Irvine Welsh, are there any other writers outside the crime genre who you like?
Tony: Influence is a tricky one to trace sometimes, but I certainly did read a lot of Americans like Hemingway, Steinbeck and Salinger for years. Outside the crime bracket I also like the Canadian writer, Douglas Coupland.
There’s obviously a lot of Scottish writers I’m influenced by, Alan Warner is one, Duncan McLean is another. There’s so many, too many to list, really.
Damien: Getting from book deal to bookshelves can be a frustrating experience. What aspects of the process have you enjoyed, if any?
Tony: My editor, the legendary Rosie de Courcy is a real sweetheart. I used to read about all these writers bigging up their editor and I would think ... you utter suck-ups, and then I got introduced to Rosie and I thought, er, maybe they were for real.
I've had more fun getting this book out than I expected, seriously, even difficult stuff was a joy as Rosie's such a great character and huge personality. She has an amusing story to tell on everything ... trust me, this woman has a hilarious anecdote about the time her office was burgled! So, yeah, working with Rosie was fabulous, more so because I'm familiar with newspaper editors, which are definitely at the other end of the scale.
Damien: As a new face tipped as One To Watch for 2008 by the Edinburgh Evening News, what advice can you give to new crime writers?
Tony: I can't give any advice to be honest; it's all a crap shoot like Andrew Vachss says. The only thing I would say is this, if you believe in your work, stick at it. I had people tell me I was mad to devote the time I did to trying to break through, and believe me, it was literally years of sacrificing my evenings, weekends and holidays, but I stuck with it ... probably because I'm too stupid, or stubborn, to know when to give up.
Damien: You’re a busy man, so how do you find time to write? What’s your writing routine?
Tony: Truth is, I wonder myself sometimes. It’s all about sacrificing everything to the time in front of the keyboard … friends, family, career, well, you get the idea. I can write any time of the day, there’s no routine at all really. I do try to set myself word targets of say, 2,000 words a day or whatever, just because if I don’t then other things will cut in and the work won’t get done. But, yeah, it’s tough juggling work and writing.
Damien: You’re editor in chief of the Pulp Pusher website. How’s that going, in terms of readership? And was the chief inspiration behind the site to discover new writers or to promote yourself?
Tony: Editor in chief ... have I been promoted? I thought I just stuck the stuff up. It's going well, thanks. The hits ramp up every month.
The chief inspiration, wasn't actually mine, it was a friend of mine who was setting up another website I was supposed to be getting a few stories from some folk for a crime shorts section but it kinda snowballed. That webzine fell through and Pusher grew like topsy, so here we are. At the start I didn't even have a book deal, so any idea of self promotion was pretty far from my mind to be honest. Of course, it's proven such a success that the potential of it as a promotional tool isn't lost on me ... I only hope by the time my book's out I've still got the energy to use the site as such.
Damien: If a movie production company bought the rights to Paying For It, who would be your ideal director? And who would you want to play Gus Dury?
Tony: There's only one person I'd want to play Gus, Robert Carlyle. And if Danny Boyle could direct, God, dream ticket.
Damien: Who do you prefer, Chandler or Hammett?
Damien: Pacino or de Niro?
Damien: Kubrick or Carpenter?
Damien: Clash or Sex Pistols?
Damien: Tony Blair or Gordon Brown?
Tony: For what, shooting? I couldn't pick...
Damien: Tintin or Asterix?
Damien: Jessica Simpson or Jessica Fletcher?
Tony: Can I take a rain check?
Damien: Do you have a favourite episode of Murder She Wrote?
Tony: Shit no. Oh wait, the last one ... I never saw it but that sounds like something to celebrate.
Damien: Lastly, if there was one book you wish you’d written, what would it be and why?
Tony: The House with the Green Shutters by George Douglas Brown. Aside from being an absolute masterpiece it says so much about human nature, society and the Scots. It’s also over a century old and still manages to be startlingly fresh and modern.