By J.N. Duncan
I would like to welcome Ed Chatterton to the THE BIG THRILL this month, for the release of his upcoming novel, UNDERLAND, book two in the series following the travails of Liverpool cop, Frank Keane. Ed is a U.K. born, former U.S. resident, and current Australian citizen, and though this is only his second crime novel, he is also both a writer and illustrator of children’s/YA books. So, let’s see what Ed has to say about his upcoming Frank Keane story and writing crime.
The most obvious question for me is this: how does a long-time and fairly prolific children’s book writer make the jump to the dark side in crime fiction?
I’d been an illustrator (still am) who mutated into a children’s author because I figured ‘hey, I’m a reader too, how hard could it be?’ It turned out to be quite hard but eventually I improved and ended up writing some longish YA novels. The same process took place with crime. I’d been a reader and fan of crime fiction and had been kicking the idea of writing something around for years. In the end, I just sat down and wrote the thing and it worked out fine. I made a conscious decision not to hold anything back.
Your first novel in this series, A DARK PLACE TO DIE, introduces us to the series’ main character, Frank Keane, a reasonably normal cop by the standards of many crime novels today. You purposefully avoided some of the more dramatic character elements here, i.e. his life is not a disaster waiting to happen. So, what inspired you to take this route?
This was very deliberate. I’m not a fan of ‘misery cops’ in crime fiction. The writers I admire all seem to be able to write grounded lead investigator characters with recognizably realistic personalities. They can be flawed – and Frank Keane certainly is – but the flaws don’t define them. The police officers I know are people first and cops second while what is the norm in crime fiction is often someone characterized as being married to the job. So Frank drinks, but isn’t an alcoholic. He is reasonably happily-married (at least in the first novel). He makes mistakes, but usually gets it mostly right. And while he is independently-minded he knows he works inside a system. He’s everyman. The interesting thing about doing this is that you then put a nominally ‘ordinary’ man into extraordinary circumstances… which is much more dramatic than the other way round. And in each subsequent novel Frank gets pushed further and further away from his regular routine. I’m going to see how much he can take!
Despite being focused on children’s books for much of your career, you’re a long-time crime fiction reader. What authors and/or books have inspired you to take up thriller writing?
As well as the three mentioned above there are the usual suspects: Conan Doyle, Ian Fleming, Agatha Christie. Individual books like THE DAY OF THE JACKAL and THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS were also influences. As an adult it’s American writers like Raymond Chandler, Elmore Leonard, George Pelecanos, Dennis Lehane, Joe Lansdale and Michael Connelly who I keep reading.
You also are an accomplished illustrator. I’m curious if you have or wanted to create illustrations for Frank and his story? If you could have a scene or two to illustrate for your upcoming story, UNDERLAND, what would you do?
I’m pretty sure that my illustrations wouldn’t be suitable for Frank! Maybe if I worked in a more graphic novel style it’d work. I suppose if I were to produce images for UNDERLAND I’d probably approach it that way; as a storyboard/graphic novel. I tend to write in a filmic way so the process wouldn’t be difficult.
As a writer, I particularly love the development process, and murder mysteries can be tricky things with their red herrings, hidden agendas and motives, and double-crossing characters. What is your process for developing the story? Does it unfold for you on the page as you write or do you like to lay it all out before you begin writing?
For me it’s a bit of both. With UNDERLAND I wanted to do something based loosely on the Greek myth of Theseus. I used the plot of that as a basis for the ‘bones’ of the story and this worked well. In terms of the fine detail what I do is write a long(ish) synopsis, perhaps ten pages in all and use that to refer back to. If things occur during the writing that work I don’t hesitate in following that line. I then make sure that I’ve been to any location I use – at least the main ones – so that there is satisfying texture to the writing. My writing process is a bit like collage. I will write scenes out of order and return to them later. I will draft and redraft almost endlessly and love the editing process. I’m not a prima donna when it comes to cutting. So when I’m writing I’m aware that fairly hefty chunks of what I’m doing will end up being sliced out.
A customer brings your book to you in the bookstore. What do you tell them to sell the story over all the other choices they have before them?
I write books I’d like to read. And I’ve read a lot.
You have a clear interest in film, given your schooling and work with commercials. Has this had an influence on your writing? How?
You’re right about that. I developed a language of writing from being a visual artist. I’d drawn and written a number of comics and graphic novel-type books so this led naturally to outlining plots in scenes. It also helps that the writers I admire have the same sense of film plotting and staging. It feels natural to me and also helps me avoid those ‘really?’ moments that mar so many movies (and books).
Both of the books in this series so far have an international flavor, which makes me wonder exactly what kind of cop Frank Keane is. Could you fill us in a bit on what this Major Incident Team is and how they function?
The Major Incident Team is a real-life section of the Merseyside Police Force. It generally deals with serious crime, murders in particular. I talked to friends on the force about the structure before setting the character in that branch. It seems to me to give enough freedom for me to write around the organizational elements. While I want the books to feel authentic I don’t want them to get bogged down as police procedurals. Frank is an ordinary cop in extraordinary situations. These situations are going to become ever more extraordinary as this is – for me – the most interesting part.
Even without life-wrecking flaws, being a cop is stressful on the personal life. What kind of issues does Frank have to work around and through in order to keep his sanity and stability on an even keel?
I was very anxious not to load Frank up with obvious angst and personality tics. He is a professional police officer with the usual human doubts and flaws. Frank’s main ‘balancing mechanism’ is his love of boxing. Like most men he’s happy once he’s worked up a sweat doing something pointless. As the series progresses his marriage does break down and Frank deals with it like most people: he muddles through somehow. In the third book in the series which I’m working on now, Frank gets dealt some extremely stressful cards and part of the pleasure (I hope) is in seeing what happens. That is the essence really of drama – seeing what happens to people in strange circumstances. And, in book 3 Frank does not keep an even keel.
You are an author overseas for most of the ITW readers. I’m always curious about the differences in a particular genre across cultures. Having lived in the U.S, U.K. and Australia now, could you speak to some of the things you may have seen/read regarding crime fiction on an international level?
It’s an interesting one because I’m not a great consumer of British or Australian crime fiction. Which isn’t to say it’s no good, just that my tastes tend to run to American writers. I think that the best American crime writers tend to write books that have a wider meaning than the genre whereas (and this is a gross generalization) Brit and Aussie writers often produce ‘technical’ crime books. For me, American writers try to go a little deeper psychologically. I also prefer the language in the US and, despite spending ten years in Australia, there are cultural references that don’t sit as naturally with me as American ones. Maybe it’s that old cliche that Brits are reserved emotionally (and the same applies to Aussies) that make their crime fiction less raw.
In that same vein, what would say to U.S. readers to get them to draw their gaze away from local shelves and look across the ocean for other possibilities?
Well this is a long-standing problem. Even as an admirer of American crime writing it seems true that only occasionally do overseas writers break through and that’s a shame as the readers are missing out, not only on some strong writers but on stories that take them to other places. The success of the Dragon Tattoo series is a perfect example of being taken into an unfamiliar world. With Frank Keane I’m trying to build an international audience and, with that in mind, I consciously set the stories in a variety of locations. He’s from Liverpool but is not tied to the place.
Just for fun, if you were to back up a few years and write a children’s/YA story about Frank Keane, what would that book be titled?
Frank Keane and the Great Hogwarts Takedown.
Ed Chatterton was born in Liverpool, England. Over the past thirty years as a children’s author and illustrator his work has been published in more than a dozen languages and has won and been shortlisted in numerous awards in the UK, US and Australia. In 2012, Random House published his debut crime novel A DARK PLACE TO DIE internationally. The sequel, UNDERLAND will be published in Australia and New Zealand in August, and in the UK in November. Ed divides his time between Australia and England.
To learn more about Ed, please visit his website.