Sandra: You’re a fan of Michael Marshall Smith. What
elements of his work do you think have carried over to your
Steve: I read his first book, Only Forward, when it came
out – a wonderful, random purchase – and it
totally blew me away; I’ve been an avid reader ever
since. The most obvious thing that influenced me is the
first-person narrative. He’s very much a ‘voice’ writer,
and the style he uses is the kind of cynical, wise-cracking
voice you might assocate with many old noir novels. I haven’t
lifted it directly, but I liked it enough to think “that’s
the approach I want”. But the thing about his books,
especially the earlier ones, is they’re very intimate
and honest, and I think that’s the thing I took away
most. Only Forward starts off as a fun and readable sci-fi
adventure novel, and it’s only at the end you realise
the themes are actually very serious and, in good ways,
mundane. It’s all about the character. I loved that:
the way he crossed genres without warning and ultimately
took you to quite a personal place where genre is irrelevant.
That’s what impressed me the most, I think.
Sandra: Now, I see The 50/50 Killer being touted as a thriller,
and it is to a point, but it is also completely a police
procedural. Do you consider yourself a thriller writer or
a procedural writer? Or do you prefer to be bound by neither
Steve: I don’t think about labels at all, beyond an
almost reluctant “can it be described as crime?”.
That’s my only real concern and, beyond that, the
various subdivisions within the genre don’t bother
me much. I just want to tell the stories that interest me,
and I don’t want ever to think “I have to write
a procedural” or “it needs to move at a hundred
miles an hour”. I mean, I do understand those issues
on a marketing level, but to me a good book is a good book;
I’m someone who follows writers rather than subgenres,
and I’ll follow writers I like wherever they want
If I had to pick a label, I guess I’d go for ‘thriller’,
simply because it’s higher-level and there’s
more that falls under it. There’s more scope to play
Sandra: What kind of research did you need to do for 50/50?
Steve: I did speak to a friend of mine, who’s a doctor,
about treatment for people with serious exposure, but beyond
that (where I wasn’t confident about fabricating it)
I did very little. To be honest, I’ve no interest
in getting my fiction as ‘close to real life’ as
possible, which is probably why I’ve been described
as science-fiction, or slipstream, or whatever, in the past.
The way I see it, all fiction, by definition, is a lie.
Every bit of it, even those books that appear to be set
in real places. You’re making up the characters and
the events, so why not make everything else up as well?
It almost seems strange to me that an audience would accept
certain parts of a story as fictitious, but expect other
parts to be scrupulously and precisely real.
So, the procedural aspect of 50/50 is utterly made-up. For
example, I think I have three police ranks in the whole
thing, and only because I needed three levels of hierarchy – I
literally have no idea whether they’re right, and
I would happily have called everyone ‘Detective’ and
had done with it. It matters to a point, but the kind of
reader who has read all the manuals and is eager with the
red pen will have a field day. I do try to be as believable
as possible, but I hope people will have a certain suspension
of disbelief. How long it takes to identify a fingerprint
matters less to me than whose fingerprint it is, and what
impact the result has.
A few reviewers have mentioned the book being set in the
UK, and then been surprised by the large woods, or the police
ranks, or by the Americanisms, and I tend to scratch my
head a bit at that. The book’s not set anywhere, and
it would never occur to me to nail a place down, not even
to the country it was set in. The book comes from every
single cultural, personal or emotional influence I’ve
experienced, and that’s the world it’s set in:
a splurge out of my head. And to be honest, I believe I’m
no different to any other writer in that respect, even the
ones who appear to write about specific cities. Every novel
is the author’s experience, filtered and sieved.
Sandra: I am amazed that you didn’t do much research.
You certainly carried it off with confidence. However, I
wonder about you saying you’re surprised when reviewers
say it’s set in the UK. You refer to ‘scene
of crime’ workers, for example, which is decidedly
In fact, there’s one very British element I wanted
to ask you about: The lack of weapons carried by officers.
There was a story last week about a Scottish police officer
being shot and killed. I’d already been thinking about
the issues British police face, being unarmed. It seemed
to me it worked to your advantage in terms of the story
aspect, but I also felt it was possible that it shed light
on an issue in UK society. What do you think about the fact
police aren’t usually armed?
Steve: Ah, yeah – I guess the term might be mainly
a UK one, but I was still drawing on general notions: the
idea, basically, that someone was killed there, so you need
someone at the scene to look for clues, and that term was
the first that sprung to mind. It’s just what came
out of the mix.
Incidentally, we got broken into a couple of years back,
and it was a real thrill when the policewoman who came round
said into her radio: “Yeah, we’re going to need
SOCO out here.” I was delighted, like a little kid.
And then she spoiled it by saying: “What was that?
You’ve gone all wibbly.”
As for arming the police – it’s a tricky one,
and I don’t have massively strong feelings either
way. The thing is, most regular police here in the UK don’t
actually want to be armed, and I don’t know whether,
if they were, it would prevent the occasional tragedies
that do occur, or simply create opportunities for new ones.
Something like one in ten are armed, and so that response
is available if needs be, but I’m not sure it would
benefit anyone for every policeman to be openly carrying
a gun, in terms of accidents, escalation or just community
In general, I’m reluctant to solve problems by throwing
guns at them. But there are certainly related issues, for
example the availability of weapons, the punishments for
carrying, the culture and attitudes, and so on – but
we could be here all day.
Sandra: “The book comes from every single cultural,
personal or emotional influence I’ve experienced,
and that’s the world it’s set in: a splurge
out of my head. And to be honest, I believe I’m no
different to any other writer in that respect, even the
ones who appear to write about specific cities. Every novel
is the author’s experience, filtered and sieved”
Would you say that’s why you can read such radically
different interpretations of cities such as Edinburgh? Alexander
McCall Smith and Ian Rankin portray very different aspects
of the same place, filtered through their eyes?
Steve: Yeah, exactly. All of us interact with our environment
in different ways at different times, whether it’s
people or places. Beyond the basic stuff like geography – and
perhaps even then – it’s all interpreted. I’m
not saying you can’t have a decent stab at portraying
a place, but it’s necessarily going to be incomplete
and coloured by your own experiences and expectations. A
particular building might imply distinct things for two
separate people, for example, and it being knocked down
would create entirely different emotions. No writers are
going to describe the same city in the same way, I doubt
they’d even describe a map of it in the same way.
Places are too complex.
Sandra: Since you are generic about setting in terms of
your assessment, do you feel there is no one place that’s
influenced you more than any other? Where have you traveled
Steve: Well, I don’t mean to say my settings are generic
in that they aren’t important to me. I’m actually
quite particular about them, and one of the main reasons
I invent places is to serve the plot and, mainly, the themes
of the book. So, in The Third Person, you have Downtown,
which is basically an old section of the city with a new
bit built over the top, and that was meant to symbolise
the character descending into the depths – he finds
the truth by going beneath everything, into a forgotten
place. Or Asiago, a fake-nostalgia town, which was about
revisiting the past and making the same mistakes as before.
And so on. The woods in The 50/50 Killer are very deliberately
fairytale in style and scope, because the book’s about
practical versus idealistic notions of love. I liked the
idea of the couple being taken in there to confront the
truth about their relationship.
They’re just small touches, but hopefully it adds
something to the story, if only on a subconscious level.
As for travelling, I haven’t been far. Spent some
time in France and Italy, a bit of back-packing, but not
as much as I’d like. A lot of Italian place names
snuck into the books – Asiago being one – and
the city in The Cutting Crew is a thinly-disguised rip of
Siena. The biggest influence would probably be Leeds, simply
because I live there. The pubs and bars always make it in.
Probably, regrettably, for the same reason.
Sandra: Without giving anything away, the storyline is quite
complex. How much do you pre-plot? Or were there things
that just organically evolved as you worked on this book?
Steve: I pre-plotted a bit, in that I knew most of the back
cover before I started. But I prefer my writing process
to be quite organic, and although I try to keep the basic
shape of what I’m intending, I usually change a lot
as I’m going on. One example would be the main twist
of the book, which, without giving anything away, didn’t
occur to me until I reached it close to the end. I tend
to have a lot of those “wouldn’t that be cool?” moments,
and then despair as I realise how much rewriting is involved.
It’s usually a lot.
Another example is the character of James Reardon, who didn’t
appear in the first draft I handed in. If you’ve read
the finished book, he’s pretty important, but that
storyline was all added in later. Eileen, too – a
key character now, but she appeared for two phonecalls in
the first draft. For me, I always need to write the book
to figure out what I actually needed to write in the first
place, and then go and do it properly. Annoying, but true.
Sandra: Since you mention some of the characters who didn’t
appear in the first draft, and that one of the major twists
was also introduced late, which aspect of the book came
to you first? A character, or concept?
Steve: I wrote a version of it about ten years ago: a nasty
horror novella. It was first-person from a guy tied to the
bed with his girlfriend, encountering the killer and trying
to work out how to escape. It was pretty hardcore, but only
had three characters and a few flashbacks, so it was maybe
too limited to work as a novel. My editor suggested expanding
it, adding in police, and so on. I worked it up from there.
The original idea came when I was on holiday with an old
girlfriend, and we nearly drowned while swimming off the
coast of Italy. We got caught in a current when there was
nobody around, and we had to swim for our lives. I was being
knocked under a lot, getting nowhere fast, and I was quite
sure I was going to die. I actually made it back to shore
first, and although I felt I should go back in, my body
literally froze up and wouldn’t let me go more than
a few paces. She was nearly in by then anyway, but I still
felt like a coward. That was where the central notion of
the book came from. The killer was just a literal representation
of that moment, and those who have read the book will know
the original incident appears, albeit slightly differently.
As pretentious as it sounds, it was always my intention
that the entire book could actually be taking place in Mark’s
head, in those few seconds when he’s on the shore.
That was originally going to be the prologue and epilogue
bookmarking the whole thing. Then I slapped myself.
Sandra: Do you mean as in it was all a memory, or just a
dream or hallucination from oxygen deprivation? Funny thing
is, when you almost die you have those moments that feel
as though they last a lifetime…
Steve: That’s true. I think I remember having a vaguely
religious experience as I was swimming towards shore, but
it was probably more like a fleeting thought. I had a far
more long-lasting one hunched over a toilet in Amsterdam,
so I’ve never put too much stock in them…
For the book, I wasn’t thinking in terms of plot,
exactly, so much as an overall idea or feeling: that the
story could be taking place in that period of time, in a
Jacob’s Ladder kind of way. In the final version,
it’s meant to be taken literally, but there’s
still a nod to it at the end, when one particular character
hallucinates something that ties the various characters
together. That was referencing the fact that, in some ways,
they all represent aspects of the same basic dilemma.
Sandra: How do you think you’d handle it if a real
50/50 Killer picked you as his target? Was there any way
for any of the original couples (note, specifically limited
to the original set of victims) to beat him?
Steve: Sad to say, but I don’t think there was any
way for them to beat him – but that was the point,
in some ways. Since he represents that “deal-breaker” in
a relationship, the only real way to beat him was to make
the choice one way or the other: do you give up on the other
person or sacrifice yourself instead? There’s no correct
answer on that level, only what works for you.
But obviously, themes aside, he’s also a particularly
nasty serial killer, and very well-prepared, so your best
bet would be to booby-trap your house in a Home Alone style
every night, check the attic, and sleep with one eye open.
Which I do.
Sandra: Does it seem at all ironic to be a newlywed and
to have just written a book about destroying relationships?
Steve: Ha ha! It’s true, yeah, especially as the book
is dedicated to my wife. But in a weird way, I do think
it’s quite a romantic novel. It’s more practical
than fairytale, but it could be worse. I met Lynn online,
not long after The Third Person came out, and that book’s
about a girl who goes missing after meeting someone online.
Try explaining that on Messenger...
Sandra: Another thing we have in common, as I also met my
husband online. In some ways we’re a modern society
but a lot of people are old-fashioned when it comes to relationships,
and I always think, would you have preferred we met in a
bar? Do you get a lot of grief about how you met?
Steve: I couldn’t say enough good things about online
dating. What’s the worst that’s likely to happen?
An amusing anecdote. It was just practical for me, as I
can’t dance for shit, and I tend to sit quietly and
listen in large groups, so I hardly ever met anyone. But
over the years, I’ve met four people from a dating
site, had four relationships, all of which were good, or
at least interesting, experiences, and so it really worked
for me. And of course, I then met Lynn, and now we’re
getting married. So, positives all round. The stigma is
lessening these days, but some people still do tend to say “hmmm” when
you mention it, possibly because they’ve been led
to believe everyone you meet online secretly wants to murder
you. Like you say: as though meeting in a bar is any better
or safer. And the connotation is often “people online
are only after sex”. People that say that obviously
haven’t been to the same bars as I have.
Sandra: Which character in the book do you most relate to
Steve: That’s a tricky one. All of them, in a way.
The obvious answer would be Mark, but in all honesty it
would probably be more like Scott or Jodie, simply because
of the relationship they’ve found themselves in. You’ve
got Jodie, who’s reluctant to leave Scott but is having
issues with him that are pushing her away, whereas Scott
knows something is wrong and desperately wants to do something
to save the relationship. I think most of us have been in
at least one of those situations at some point, if not both.
Sandra: The 50/50 Killer has been widely praised, and rightly
so, for being original. I couldn’t help thinking that
so many publishers might not back something so unique. You’re
using multiple points of view and you have a very tight
timeline – 14 hours and 10 minutes is allotted for
the bulk of the story. This is quite a challenge. Is there
any part of you that you think consciously or subconsciously
tries to avoid falling into certain patterns with your work
or does it just naturally chart its own course?
Steve: Well, I always want to be as original as I can be.
It’s a bit of a cliché to say, but the idea
is to write a ‘novel’, and I don’t see
any point in just rehashing stuff that’s gone before,
no matter what the commercial benefits. My gut feeling is
that patterns are bad – and I mean that as much for
readers as for writers. The problem with publishing, if
there is one, is the search for patterns, and the pigeonholing
that goes along with it. I do understand it – it’s
a natural consequence of the commodification of anything – but
it’s something I constantly feel the need to negotiate
with myself, at least, if not subvert as much as possible.
In terms of my publishers, Orion have been fabulous from
the beginning. You hear horror stories about authors being
dropped for under-performing, but I’ve had the back-handed
benefit of not being paid or promoted too much. The attitude
has always seemed to be “we like your writing, and
we think you’ll deliver a breakthrough at some point,
even if it’s six or seven books down the line”.
Which is great for me. No big advances, but no huge pressures,
and lots of creative freedom. In my experience, most of
the people who work in publishing at every level love books.
They don’t want you to churn out some shit: they want
to be enthused. And I’ve been really lucky to find
people like that. In fact, I’ve been lucky, full-stop.
Sandra: How did you find working with the time constraints
of the book? Was it tough?
Steve: Actually, it wasn’t any harder than any other
timeline. The real difficulty I find with multiple viewpoints – over
any duration of time – is getting the key events to
happen in each chapter while still keeping everything moving
at pace in some kind of chronological order. With The 50/50
Killer, I scuppered myself slightly by setting alternating
viewpoints, in that Mark gets every other chapter. I could
really have done with a few double Mark chapters, or vice
versa, and that caused a few headaches.
It forced me to be inventive, though. For example, another
second-draft invention was the character of Charlie. If
I didn’t have the alternating chapter problem, he
wouldn’t have been there, but it ended up adding another
layer to the plot that I hadn’t thought of before.
The opposite of that is the incredibly elaborate interplay
between Mark and Scott in the second half of the book. Scott’s
delirious chapters were very difficult to mix in with his
wide-awake interviews. I think I just about managed to get
it all to flow, to create a coherent account of what happened
to him in the woods, but it took ages to figure out how
the structure of that conversation mapped over the structure
of the book.
Sandra: I want to talk about one part of the book in particular.
And for anyone who dislikes even the slightest hint of a
spoiler, skip to the next question, but I have to ask about
this. It’s the poem, which for those who haven’t
read the book, is a clue left by the killer.
In the space between the days
you lost the melancholy shepherd of the stars.
The moon is gone and the wolves of space move in
and pick his flock off one by one.
When I read that I really thought the 50/50 Killer was talking
about Mercer. “You lost the melancholy shepherd of
the stars” – the team lost their leader. “The
moon is gone” – he was their light in darkness,
you could say, the one that spurred them on. “The
wolves of space move in, grow bold” – Detective
Sergeant Hunter. The attitudes towards Mercer when he returned
to work. “Pick his flock off one by one.”
Isn’t the real relationship he’s trying to kill
the one between Mercer and his team, not just the other
Steve: I’m glad you picked up on that, although it’s
only one strand of the storyline. I deliberately portrayed
the killer as quite a mysterious character and – since
we’re into serious spoiler territory – he wears
a devil mask and you never really find out who he is. And
that’s because, to me, he was principally a metaphor.
What he does symbolises the ‘dealbreaker’ in
a relationship. He causes so much pain and suffering that
you have no choice but to say “To serve my own selfish
purposes, I give up on this person I said I loved”,
and each of the characters faces that situation in their
own way. There’s Mercer and his wife. There’s
Mercer and his team (especially Greg, but also Pete too).
Scott and Jodie. Mark and Lise. Mark and Mercer, to an extent.
The 50/50 Killer is a physical person in the book, but what
he represents is something that can affect any relationship
in a number of different ways. Getting a visit from him
is just a more extreme version of learning your partner
has had an affair, or them asking you not to do something
you feel is important to you, and so on.
The poem is interesting, though, as it’s another example
of that magpie-like cultural mess I talked about under research.
It was written by an old friend of mine about ten years
ago. I read it at the time, loved it, and then eventually
realised it would fit 50/50 really well. That was a second-draft
addition too. He was gracious enough to allow me to use
it, and you’ll see the credit at the front of the
book, and in the acknowledgements. I like little details
like that – makes the book seem more alive and organic.
In my head, at least!
Sandra: Will any of these characters be back for a future
Steve: Never say never, but I doubt it. All the characters
have reached the end of whatever arcs they were on, and
I’d only be bringing them back for the sake of it,
which wouldn’t be good. I did consider them for the
next book, but decided it would be too forced. Plus, once
you’ve written them twice, you might start thinking
you have to write them again, and I don’t need my
characters stressing me out like that, not on top of everything
else… No, I’m quite fond of standalones, mainly
because anything goes. That said, I like to play things
by ear, so it could happen.
Sandra: What inspired you to start writing?
Steve: I think you have to blame my parents for that one,
as I was always encouraged to read and write when I was
younger. We weren’t exactly well-off, but I remember
my mother saying “there’s always money for books”,
and I grew up with the idea that fiction was something very
special – which I still think today, to the point
that I’ve never knowingly thrown a book away. Being
a writer is all I’ve ever wanted to be. I used to
write ‘books’ when I was seven or eight, and
all the way through school it was the only career I ever
had in mind.
These days, I’m inspired by great books I read, and
by the buzz I get from finishing something I’m happy
with, whether it’s a novel, a chapter or even just
a paragraph. I can’t imagine myself doing anything
else. Even if I was never published again, I’d still
be doing it, every day for the rest of my life.
Sandra: How did you get your first publishing deal?
Steve: I think I was just in the right place at the right
time. I’d been submitting material to agents for about
ten years, during which I stacked up six or seven unpublished
novels, which were rightly turned down as not being good
enough. But it was all a learning process and, for the last
few, I was concentrating on one particular agent, Carolyn
Whitaker, who was increasingly complimentary in the rejections
and aways expressed an interest in seeing what I did next.
She agreed to send The Third Person to Orion, and I think
it went around the various offices there – was it
sci-fi, was it mainstream, etc? I was lucky that Orion were
planning the New Blood promotion (nine new crime authors
launched at the same time), because they decided The Third
Person would fit into that.
And so the actual publishing deal itself was a relatively
painless process. It was ten long years to get an agent,
then the first publishing house she approached took the
Sandra: You recently left the day job. Has it been hard
to settle to the full-time writing life?
Steve: Yeah, it was very strange, although obviously, it’s
also a dream come true. It’s taken me a bit to work
out the amount of time I have to do things in. It seems
like a lot, so there’s been a tendency to think “ahhh,
there’s months left yet…”. And then suddenly
there isn’t. Left to my own devices, I will just watch
DVDs and waste my time, so there’s certainly been
a learning curve involved in organising myself. I have a
better idea of what I’m doing now. I force myself
to sit down and work, and – as always – have
promised myself I’ll be a lot more sensible with the
Sandra: What’s your typical writing day like?
Steve: It varies a lot. I write full-time, but I’m
not as disciplined as I should be, and the amount of time
I spend working depends where I’m at. In the planning
stages, I just potter about: make notes and let ideas come
as and when. Some days, I’m happy coming up with one
plot point or a connection, and others I work a lot harder.
When I’m writing, I start slowly – maybe 1,000
words a day – and when I’m heading to a deadline,
as I am right now, I do more. I did 4,000 every day this
week, although at least half of that’ll be junk. I
try to start as early as possible: maybe about half-seven
or eight in the morning, but I don’t have any set
routine. I probably should.
Sandra: What kinds of things do you like to do when not
Steve: Just the usual sorts of thing, really – nothing
too exciting or original. Watch films, read books, listen
to good music, go to gigs, socialise with friends. I like
going to the gym, and out for long walks with my headphones
on so I can think about things. Occasionally, I get interested
in random stuff and concentrate on it. A couple of weeks
back, for example, I was intrigued by memory techniques,
and I memorised the World Cup and FA Cup final scores for
the last fifty years. And then I lost interest and stopped.
Next week, it’ll probably be something else. I have
a pretty short attention span.
Sandra: What music is currently inspiring you?
Steve: Not as much as I’d like, just because I don’t
buy as much as I used to. I liked the new Nine Inch Nails
album, and the new one by a British rock band called The
Wildhearts. I don’t really follow football, but The
Wildhearts are like my equivalent of supporting a footie
team. They split up; they get back together. They come out
with great albums; they come out with okay ones. It’s
all up and down, but I’ll always buy their album as
soon as its available, and catch them live when they come
near enough. The new one’s a bit of a return to form
I don’t know if music inspires me in terms of writing,
though. I’ll listen to headphones if I’m out
for a walk, and think stuff over then, but I can’t
have music on when I’m doing the writing itself or
else the words get jumbled up. I can’t even talk on
the telephone in the television’s on, for the same
Sandra: If your fate in your next lifetime was to be an
electronic appliance which would you be and why?
Steve: Bloody hell – I’ve no idea. Probably
a laptop that’s so utterly jammed with crap it crashes
all the time. You’d have to swear and smack it to
get it to do anything.
Sandra: And if the fate was to be an animal?
Steve: I should say, I don’t believe in any of this
next life stuff. I’m a proper, full-on, card-carrying
rationalist: no belief in religion, ghosts, souls, psychics,
or any of it. But having said that, I’d be a cat.
I’m a cat person.
ABOUT THE INTERVIEWER
Sandra Ruttan’s debut suspense novel, Suspicious Circumstances,
was released in January, 2007. For more information about Sandra visit
Return to Summer 2007 Table of Contents
2007 SPINETINGLER Magazine - All rights reserved