Although he was born in Cumbria, England in 1968, author Mike Craven grew up in the northeast and attended the same school as Newcastle and England center-forward, Alan Shearer, before running away to join the circus army. He believes, but has no proof, that his little sister moved into his bedroom before the train had even left the station. He trained for two years as an armourer (that’s gunsmith to you and I) before spending the next ten being paid to travel the world and drink ridiculous amounts of alcohol.
In 1995, sick of writing postcards and having fun, he decided it might be time to do something a bit more sensible. And it doesn’t get more sensible than getting a law degree. So, he did social work instead. Two years later, he started working in Cumbria as a probation officer. Sixteen years, and a few promotions later, he is still there; although as a crime writer, he now has different motivations for trying to get inside the minds of criminals.
In between joining the army and securing a publishing deal, Mike found time to nurture a pet crocodile, survive cancer, get married, and buy a springer spaniel named Bracken. He wanted to call him Gimli, but was told to grow up. He lives in Carlisle where he tries to leave the house as little as possible and gets annoyed by people who say “it’s too cold to snow” and “watch that swan, its wings can break your arm”.”
Craven took time out of that busy schedule to talk to The Big Thrill about his new release, ASSUME NOTHING, BELIEVE NOBODY, CHALLENGE EVERYTHING, a collection of short stories that explores betrayals of trust, poker cheats, ambitious barristers, cyber bullies, lost diplomats and revenge.
What drives you to write these stories?
I think most writers have the urge to write and I’m no different. But where the urge comes from will be different for everyone and I suspect mine comes from a ridiculously overactive imagination. Asking “What if?” to the things I see and hear about at work and at home lead me into areas that are sometimes too weird to even jot down as a rough idea. But other times a gem of an idea forms and that’s where my stories start. I’m a Probation Officer by day and some of the cases I deal with at work inevitably end up on the page, albeit changed beyond recognition. A good example would be F.I.I., the first story in ASSUME NOTHING, BELIEVE NOBODY, CHALLENGE EVERYTHING, which deals with Fabricated and Induced Illness (previously referred to as Munchausen by Proxy.) We had a case of this in Cumbria and going back to the second sentence, instead of simply writing an account of what I know happened, I asked myself, “What if? The result took the story in a direction that both surprised and disturbed me.
I joined the Probation Service in 1999 as a Probation Officer and worked out of the Whitehaven office in Cumbria—I left the office to move to Carlisle a few months before the Derek Bird spree killing, which originated in Whitehaven. Staff there were told to get under their desks for the duration of the incident and we had staff whose family were victims. Events like that shape you as a human and therefore shape you as a writer. Although my favorite author is Terry Pratchett and I have a fondness for fantasy, I didn’t think twice before choosing to focus on crime writing.
I also live in a beautiful part of the country. The English Lake District is world famous and has a fantastic literary heritage. William Wordsworth and Beatrix Potter being just two examples. The strapline for Cumbria is “A safe place to live, work and visit” and in truth it is. But there is also extreme poverty and deprivation here, and I’ve witnessed this firsthand during the course of my job. Parts of Cumbria have a lower GDP than the Czech Republic, and through my writing I hope to shine a light on some of these less cozy areas.
What makes these stories different in your view?
ASSUME NOTHING, BELIEVE NOBODY, CHALLENGE EVERYTHING is a collection of linked short stories. They serve the dual purpose of introducing the characters in the novel, Born in a Burial Gown (released 11th June 2015), but also give some of the context into the opening chapters where my protagonist, Detective Inspector Avison Fluke, has just returned to work after a year off from battling with cancer.
I suppose the stories, and the novel, are different because of my personal connection. I was diagnosed with Burkitt’s Lymphoma in 2003 and barely lived through the operation and subsequent treatment. Although I’m fine now, it has had a lasting impact on how I think I should live my life. I was going to write about my experiences in a short non-fiction book but instead, probably as a subconscious attempt at allowing some form of catharsis, elected to give Fluke the same illness and the same experiences, right down to same hospital. I changed his side-effects to suit the premise—Fluke has a blood disorder as a result of his chemotherapy meaning he struggles to produce enough platelets. This disorder would be enough for him to either lose his job or be desk bound, so he lies about his health and hides it. How he does this and the consequences of his deception are central to the plot of Born in a Burial Gown.
How has your professional career influenced your writing?
After being given the all-clear in 2004, I returned to work. Most people don’t realize that Probation Officers spend more face-to-face time interviewing criminals than any other profession in the U.K., more than the police, prison officers and defence solicitors combined. Most of what we do is trying to work out why criminals have behaved the way they have, and how we can reduce the number of future victims. To do that successfully, we have to get inside their heads. It’s a job I still love, and over the years I have worked with criminals of every variety, from the saddest drug addict to murderers, rapists, and terrorists—and it is this insight, along with the close working relationship probation has with the police, that allows me to write what I think is gritty, authentic crime fiction. When I write I want to make sure that the criminal’s voice is heard as well, that their motivation for committing the offence is just as plausible and realistic as the police response. I’m sure we’ve all been disappointed by books where the reasons behind the murder or murders were non-existent, flimsy, or downright silly. What you get from my writing is very human reactions to the realistic situations people occasionally find themselves in and their subsequent, sometimes extreme, reactions. For me the “why” is just as interesting as the “how” and the “who.”
As well as an unlimited supply of criminals, working for probation also gives me access to people like police officers, prison officers, and judges who I wouldn’t ordinarily be able to meet outside of work, and they are always happy to offer assistance when they can. Another advantage is the sheer volume of papers, documents, and policies that find their way to my desk—papers the general public don’t even know exist. And although I am very careful about using only what is in the public domain, it allows me to ensure when things can be factually accurate.
Before joining probation, I served in the British Army for eleven years and I think some of the dark humor in my writing emanates from that period of my life. One of my key characters, Detective Sergeant Matt Towler, is certainly a combination of a few soldiers I met on various operations.
Do you think writing is a sensible career?
I hope so! As part of the Ministry of Justice’s privatization of probation services, there are going to be redundancies this year, and living on the Scottish border, it’s going to be difficult for me to get anywhere more central to work, so I think I’m probably in the final few months of my probation career. I’m not too downhearted though, as I see this as an opportunity to give being a full-time writer a serious go. I’m contracted to a great publisher, Caffeine Nights Publishing, and intend to work hard to make sure I give myself every chance of success.
On the sensible part, what’s not sensible about trying to make a living by doing something you love, something you would be doing anyway? But, “ask me again in three years” is probably the short answer to that question.
How does your new book fit in with the rest of your writing?
I view myself as primarily a crime writer. Although I enjoy fantasy occasionally, and have even gone as far as having outlined a young adult fantasy novel, crime is what I predominantly read. ASSUME NOTHING, BELIEVE NOBODY, CHALLENGE EVERYTHING is the first book I’ve had published, although the full length novel follows hotly on its heels. Although they are probably best classed as police procedurals, there is a strong mystery element to them. Quoting Lee Child, “ask a question in the first chapter, don’t answer until the last.”
Although all my writing is dark in tone, I like to think there are genuinely funny moments to lighten the mood. Dark and authentic with humor is what I enjoy reading, and it’s unsurprising how I write.
Will we see the characters in the book return?
The full cast of characters introduced in ASSUME NOTHING, BELIEVE NOBODY, CHALLENGE EVERYTHING will all be back for Born in a Burial Gown. Although Fluke is the protagonist and the story unfolds with him, DS Matt Towler, an ex-paratrooper, is a larger-than-life character and tends to steal every scene he’s in. Book four (five if you count the short stories as book number one) in the series is planned as a Towler story, and the seeds of this have already been planted in the first books. I’m nearly finished the sequel to Born in a Burial Gown, and it’s provisionally titled Body Breaker.
I do have another crime series in mind, but for now I’m focusing on establishing Fluke et al as one of the go-to series for crime set in Northern England.
What writers do you enjoy most?
I love the work of Michael Connelly, and Harry Bosch is my absolute favorite contemporary detective. For Christmas 2013, my sister kindly queued up in Waterstones, York, to get me a signed copy of The Black Box, and it’s one of my most treasured possessions. She told him I was also a crime writer and he wrote a lovely note of encouragement inside the jacket. I was also lucky enough to meet Lee Child at the Crime Writers’ Association Dagger Awards in 2013, and he is also up there with modern writers I enjoy. Stephen King doesn’t seem to have too many off days either; Joyland and Mr Mercedes were books I thoroughly enjoyed last year, and so far the best book I’ve read in 2015 has been, The Kind Worth Killing by Peter Swanson, a cleverly constructed plot which masterly upsets expectations.
Closer to home I’ve been reading a lot of Chris Brookmyre and love his style of writing—sometimes I have to put his books down I’m laughing so hard! Michael Malone is another author I enjoy reading, and as a poet, his writing has a lyrical quality not seen that often these days. Stuart MacBride, Caro Ramsay and Ian Rankin are also frighteningly consistent in producing high quality crime novels every year, and it must be something about living so close to Scotland that I have such an affinity with Scottish writers. When I’m in the mood for a good old fashioned action novel, I look no further than Cumbria’s very own, Matt Hilton.
Going back a bit I grew up reading Ed McBain and always have one or two of his books on the go. I also try and read the complete works of Sherlock Holmes every year.
Although he was born in Cumbria, England, in 1968, Mike Craven grew up in the North East, going to the same school as Newcastle and England centre-forward, Alan Shearer, before running away to join the circus army. He believes, but has no proof, that his little sister moved into his bedroom before the train had even left the station. He trained for two years as an armourer (that’s gunsmith to you and I) before spending the next ten being paid to travel the world and drink ridiculous amounts of alcohol. In 1995, sick of writing postcards and having fun, he decided it might be time to do something a bit more sensible. And it doesn’t get more sensible than doing a law degree. So he did Social Work instead. Two years later, as pimply-faced, naive social worker he started working in Cumbria as a probation officer. Sixteen years, and a few promotions, later he is still there, although as a crime writer, he now has different motivations for trying to get inside the minds of criminals. Mike’s first DI Avison Fluke novel, Born in a Burial Gown, was shortlisted for the Crime Writers’ Association Debut Dagger Award and will be out on 11th June, published by Caffeine Nights. His collection of short stories featuring Fluke and his colleagues from the Cumbrian Force Major Incident Team, Assume Nothing, Believe Nobody, Challenge Everything, is out now. In between joining the army and securing a publishing deal, Mike found time to have a pet crocodile, survive cancer, get married, and buy a springer spaniel named Bracken. He wanted to call him Gimli but was told to grow up. He lives in Carlisle where he tries to leave the house as little as possible and gets annoyed by people who say “it’s too cold to snow” and “watch that swan, its wings can break your arm”. Mike is a member of the Crime Writers’ Association and the International Thriller Writers’.