Author Interview

CRITICALLY-ACCLAIMED AUTHOR OF THE 50/50 KILLER, STEVE MOSBY TALKS ABOUT PUBLISHER SUPPORT, THE CHALLENGES OF WRITING FULL TIME AND WHAT’S NEXT

By Sandra Ruttan


Sandra: You’re a fan of Michael Marshall Smith. What elements of his work do you think have carried over to your own?

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 label?

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 to go.

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 around.

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 British.

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 relations.

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 to?

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 and why?

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

grow bold

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 ones?

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 work?

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 book on.

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 next book.

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 writing?

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 for them.

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 reason.

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 her website


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