It’s Christmas time and, in the midst of a record snowstorm, a police officer is murdered by a suicidal teenager. At virtually the same time, a rhino is killed at the zoo and its horn is removed, and the largest store in the city is robbed by a mannequin. As detectives try to solve these crimes, they reflect on their lives, each one realizing that changes have to be made. This is how Nigel Bird’s LET IT SNOW begins and, in juggling these cases, Bird manages to create more than enough suspense to keep the reader turning pages to find out what happens.
Bird is the author of a number of novels, novellas, and short story collections, including In Loco Parentis and Dirty Old Town. Somehow, he manages to juggle his 30-year career as a teacher in both mainstream and special schools.
In this The Big Thrill interview, we get to the nitty gritty of Bird’s path to publication, starting from his childhood.
Where were you born?
I was born in Liverpool, but moved to Preston at an early age. The Preston I remember was a curious mixture of gloomy decay and unending optimism. It was recovering from the end of a successful industrial past, moving through a period of dereliction and looking for ways to overcome the knocks. The images I hold contain blackened red-brick buildings under gray skies, the river, parks, a Victorian train station, and a staggering concrete bus depot, all blending to form something quite beautiful.
It’s changed over the years. The beauty has been replaced by a chaos of bland, ugly, and unplanned architecture. It was a great place to grow up. We were in the middle of an inspiring period in culture and music. Rebellion and creativity were everywhere. There was, however, always a sense that there was something more. With Liverpool and Manchester on the doorstep, we had access to even more riches and could see the possibilities other scenes offered. It was a great place to grow up. It was also a great place to leave.
What kind of kid were you?
At home, I was probably an angry, physical, and dominating force among the children. I’m amazed any of them speak to me these days. At school, I was intensely shy and insecure, and therefore was very unhappy. We spent our time roaming the old railway line, hanging out on parks and street corners and generally getting into mischief.
As I got older, I settled down a little. Sport became very important and allowed me to feel good about myself. I think I benefited from the structure and rules of the various activities and found a set of loyal friends in the process.
What did your parents do for a living?
My dad was a family doctor which in those days meant he was a virtual absentee from the home. He was generally stressed and exhausted. Though I see him now as one of the most kind and thoughtful people I’ve ever come across, something almost everyone who has met him would echo, he was unable to cope with the boisterous antics of his children and he could be a very angry and physical man.
My mum gave up work when we came along. She came over from Ireland to train as a midwife and worked her way up to being a ward sister. Most of her efforts went into looking after us and trying to keep us on the straight and narrow. When money was tight, she took on work on the tills of local supermarkets and when she had spare time later in life, she worked as a volunteer managing a local charity shop. Her ideal job would have been smoking—she always had a cigarette on the go and even when it was clear the things were killing her and she could barely breathe, she’d sneak off for a puff.
What did you want to be when you grew up?
I wanted to be a marine biologist. That was entirely because of watching Jacques Cousteau on the TV. He was so cool and made the world seem interesting. As I got older, my fantasy was that I’d win some money, buy some land, and just be there with my dog growing vegetables and the like. Later, I wanted the lifestyle offered to musicians and artists, some easy-living hedonism, but I lacked the talent to move in those directions.
Who did you read growing up?
I pretty much hated reading. I struggled with the books I was given and I found the process so difficult that I totally disengaged as soon as I moved beyond Dr. Seuss. That doesn’t mean I didn’t love stories. I have fabulous memories of listening to BBC radio tales from around the world in school. They were rich and created images and emotions in a way that had me transfixed. We also had a great teacher in our final primary school year who read us Huckleberry Finn and White Fang and it was he that fueled my passion.
In secondary school, I hated books even more. The one story that hit home was “The Necklace” by Guy de Maupassant. Seven years of education and the only fiction that excited me took all of 20 minutes to get through. When I left home at 18, I read Junky and I couldn’t believe that reading a novel yourself could be such a wonderful experience.
When did you start to write and why did you choose the crime genre?
During the period of the discovery of books as an older teenager and in my early 20s, I finally realized what I wanted to do: become a writer. I’m not even sure I understood what that meant. In some ways, it was a fantasy similar to that of being a musician or an artist, but when it came to words, I found I could actually put them onto paper and express what I meant in a way I never managed with a musical instrument or a paintbrush. I began with diaries, loving the process of recording what was going on inside my head and the filter it gave me to look at the world and see things in a different way. It made me a more confident observer and helped me to get more of a sense of the lives of others.
My journey took me to a literary festival where my brother and I decided we could do better than the guy we’d just witnessed reciting under canvas and set up a poetry and short fiction magazine called The Rue Bella. Like most magazines of that nature, we ran it at a loss.
Around that time, I became friends with Allan Guthrie, whom I’d approached with my first novel and who gave me far more time than I deserved to inspire and correct and advise. After we’d known each other for a little while, he put out some work for Kindle and he suggested I do the same. The result was Dirty Old Town (and other stories) and it was a big success.
Kafka, Zola, Steinbeck, Salinger, Vonnegut, London, Woolf (Virginia), and Hemingway, to name a few. I was just trying to find my way and picking up things that had clear pedigree. First crime influences: Simenon, Freeling, Chandler.
And considering I wasn’t big on reading, my main influences came from the screen. Noir films, B-movies, screwballs, Hughes and Hawks, Lang and the brothers Marx, Cagney and Bogart, Hepburn and Tracy.
Why did you choose to write about crime?
I’m not sure I chose it as such. Essentially, ideas for my work appeared and I wrote them down. I was reading lots of crime and noir fiction and found myself writing in that area. I soon became involved in a crime-writing community that I loved to be part of.
Tell us something about LET IT SNOW.
It’s the first book in a series and it’s a direct result of reading books in the 87th Precinct series by Ed McBain. I admire and enjoy those books a great deal and wanted to put something together that contained some of the flavors of that.
I began with the characters and the idea of taking a cop-killing as the kick-off point. I wanted to weave in other cases to reflect the busy life of a police station and those working there and to overlap the cases to see how the officers involved would cope and react. The characters aren’t based on anyone in terms of who they are, but to help me remember their physical details I’ve linked them to actual people so that I get them right as I move from book to book.
The city I created is fictitious. That’s a challenge I didn’t expect to be so tough. There’s no Google Maps in the world of the imagination, so trying to visualize places over and over again was a problem I hadn’t foreseen.
I recently finished the follow-up to LET IT SNOW and it will be released next year. Then, I’ll write a third in the series and possibly a fourth.
His work has appeared in a number of prestigious magazines and collections, including two editions of Best of British Crime Stories, The Reader, Crimespree, and Needle.
As well as writing fiction, he has been a teacher for 30 years and has worked in a number of mainstream and special schools.
He lives on the East Coast of Scotland in Dunbar with his wife and three children.