M. W. (Mike) Craven’s latest novel, BLACK SUMMER, the latest in the Washington Poe series, is a wonderfully rich and twisty mystery/thriller that takes place in Cumbria, England, where he lives with his wife, a bookkeeper and a “qualified proofreader,” along with their springer spaniel, Bracken, the real-life inspiration for Poe’s dog, Edgar.
His father, who was a cigarette salesman, died when he was 14, and his mother, a nurse who then became a full-time mother and unfortunately passed away three years before he became a published author. He has two sisters, one an ex-police officer who lives in York, and a theater nurse who lives in Devon.
In this The Big Thrill interview, Craven spends some time discussing his path to publication and the latest installment of his Washington Poe series, BLACK SUMMER.
Let’s start with a little personal history.
I was born in Carlisle, England, but moved to Newcastle, the two counties that border Scotland, when I was six months old. In 1999 I moved to Cumbria, which is the very top left of England. Newcastle has very strong working-class roots. I’ve been reading a lot of Dennis Lehane recently, and how he paints Boston is how I would paint Newcastle. It has a strong mining and ship building heritage, both consigned to history now, and like Boston, the city revolves around sport, in our case the local football team, Newcastle United. Being so close to the Scottish border, Carlisle Castle is historically the most invaded and besieged castle in Europe, and Carlisle has always felt like a city struggling with its identity. I love both cities, and will someday end up living in the big rural bit in the middle, I suspect.
Tell us about your army experience?
I had no idea what I wanted to do when I reached my teens, but my friend wanted to join the infantry. Bored, I followed him into the recruiting office and the wily sergeant said that I may as well take the test at the same time because I was waiting anyway. Long story short: I joined, he didn’t. I don’t regret it, though, and I’m convinced it helped me become a better writer in the long-term. When you’re out on Ops you tend to take a couple of books, but you can’t carry loads, so you end up swapping them amongst each other. Invariably you start discussing and critiquing them, and I think that’s where I got my ability to really read books, rather than just read them. And if that doesn’t make sense, blame the British Army.
At one point you wanted to be an otter expert. What’s with that?
Ha ha, the otter thing. When I left the army, I applied to be the warden on an estate with specific responsibility for the resident otters. I knew nothing about them and tried to bluff my way through the interview. It did not go well. My friends called me Otter Man for a while.
I had been determined to have six months off when I left the army (without a plan, I may add), but when I walked past Newcastle University I knew that’s what I wanted to do next: return to education and get a degree. I initially thought law, but the social work degree was a year shorter. It was a good course, and during it I heard of an organization called the probation service, who, at that time, recruited exclusively from social work students.
Tell us a little about being a probation officer.
Probation officers have more face-to-face contact with offenders than any other profession. The job is basically talking to them, assessing them, helping them, managing them. Although it seems probation is an offender-centric service, it’s all about reducing the number of future victims, and, in some cases, helping victims cope with what has happened to them.
Cumbria is considered a low-crime county and it largely is. Unfortunately, we are known for a spree killing, the last one the UK has had. In 2010, Derek Bird shot dead his brother and his solicitor. He then moved into Whitehaven itself and killed more people before driving around the back roads of west Cumbria for two hours, killing anyone he came across. He finally chose a small wood in which to kill himself. Twelve people died that day, not including Bird. At no point did the police ever have eyes on him. Bird was a taxi driver, and Cumbria has myriad back roads. I was the senior manager on duty that day and had to ring the office and tell them to get everyone inside the building—staff, offenders, offenders’ families—lock the doors and get under the desks. A very scary time.
Okay, let’s talk about writing.
I’d always felt the urge to write. I just didn’t think working class boys from the north of England were allowed to. At school I was always scribbling stories—usually adventure stories, and invariably football would feature at some point—but I never took it seriously. It wasn’t until after I was ill that I took it a bit more seriously. In 2013 I was shortlisted for the CWA Debut Dagger and went down to London for the awards ceremony. I met Lee Child (still one of the nicest people in the industry) and Frederick Forsyth (Freddie to his publicists who were on our table), and I met a lot of people who were just like me. I took it very seriously from then on in.
I’m a full-time writer now—have been since 2015—and it’s even better than I thought it would be. I write Monday to Friday and am contracted for one book a year at the moment. I’m quite disciplined—something else I took from the army, I suspect—and won’t leave my desk until I’ve achieved what I want to achieve for that day.
Tell us a little about your first books and the main characters?
My first series was set in Cumbria and features Detective Inspector Avison Fluke. He’s returning to work after surviving Burkitt’s lymphoma (dunno where I got that idea . . .) but has lied about his side effects. There were two novels and a short story collection in the series and they were well received, but they weren’t massively well read. They’re being re-published in January next year with a fresh edit, fresh covers, and some marketing and publicity. I’m actually working on them now and it’s a bit weird going back and re-visiting the first thing I wrote. My writing has certainly developed since 2013.
Tell us a little about BLACK SUMMER
It’s the second in the Washington Poe series. Poe was less antagonistic towards everyone and Tilly, who works with him, was a bit more streetwise. But about a third of the way through, I didn’t have a name for my protagonist. Someone misheard me say Washington Post as Washington Poe and I knew I had my name. When I worked out his name’s provenance he became a far darker character than I’d imagined, and to balance that I had to rewrite Tilly to make her much lighter. He’s a grumpy, sometimes violent misanthrope; she’s an ex-child genius, ex-academic, taking her first steps into the adult world. For some reason their friendship—as unlikely as it is—really works.
Food and restaurants play a big part in BLACK SUMMER—is this a special interest of yours?
In many ways I’m like Poe. I’m a Luddite when it comes to tech (my wife isn’t, luckily) and I’d be happy if all I could eat from now on in was sausages. But we also like eating out and we like cooking. We like watching Masterchef (UK and Australian), The Great British Menu, and countless other cooking programs. A lot of what’s in BLACK SUMMER was therefore pre-researched. When Poe and Tilly dine at Bullace & Sloe, the restaurant where a murder was committed, and have the tasting menu, I made up that entire menu. I’m sure a chef will tell me there are things that aren’t correct, but I thought it would be better than copying one.
Tell us a little more about your characters.
Like most writers, the characters in my head are an amalgamation of people I’ve met and experiences I’ve had. Occasionally I can be a bit naughty, and if someone has pissed me off I may make them “squat, with fat arms,” but I won’t attach a real name to them. I know who I mean, but no one else will. One of the chefs in the book—”. . . his simian arms were pale, hairy and disproportionately long,” was named after a friend of mine but I did get permission from him before I teased him.
A writer friend of mine, Michael Malone (A Suitable Lie), has written me as a drunk in one book and on a headstone in a church graveyard in another. I’m writing a fantasy young adult and I’ve invented a disgusting skin disease called Malone Syndrome to get my revenge.
The Curator, Poe 3, is in the bag and will be out next year, and I’ve almost finished Poe 4. The two Fluke novels—Born in a Burial Gown and Body Breaker—are both out on January 9th 2020.
Studio Lambert (TV production company) optioned The Puppet Show, the first in the Poe series, in 2017, and are now at the stage where they’ve been commissioned to deliver a script. That’s done and we are now in the script edit phase. It’s looking very positive, but these things take time obviously. Exciting stuff though.
M. W. Craven was born in Carlisle but grew up in Newcastle, running away to join the army at the tender age of sixteen. He spent the next ten years travelling the world having fun, leaving in 1995 to complete a degree in social work with specialisms in criminology and substance misuse. Thirty-one years after leaving Cumbria, he returned to take up a probation officer position in Whitehaven, eventually working his way up to chief officer grade. Sixteen years later he took the plunge, accepted redundancy and became a full-time author. He now has entirely different motivations for trying to get inside the minds of criminals . . .
The Puppet Show, the first in a two-book deal he signed with the Little, Brown imprint, Constable in 2017, was released to critical acclaim in hardback in 2018. It has been sold in numerous foreign territories and the production company Studio Lambert, creators of the award-winning Three Girls, have optioned it for TV. The sequel, Black Summer, follows in June 2019.
M. W. Craven is married and lives in Carlisle with his wife, Joanne. When he isn’t out with his springer spaniel, or talking nonsense in the pub, he can be found at punk gigs and writing festivals up and down the country.
To learn more, please visit his website.