The Devil is in the detail, so they say. Here, debut author explains to Chris High how research, persistence and the love of writing helped get his debut novel, American Devil (Headline) published.
This is your debut novel so it must be a real thrill seeing your book on shelves up and down the country?
It's an amazing privilege to be published and I feel very lucky to have been taken up by Headline. I think I've been excited for about a year now, so I really should stop. However, I've still not seen the book in any bookshops yet! It doesn't comes out in paperback until 2nd September, so I look forward to that. It will be thrilling, I think, and will take some getting used to. I will probably buy a copy myself (maybe even a couple of copies).
How long did American Devil take to write from initial idea to hardback?
It seems like a long time ago that I sent three chapters out to a number of agents and sat back waiting. I think, all in all, It took a couple of years to get the manuscript complete, which was last September. There were very significant re-writes to do and I'm not sure a single part of it remains from my early drafts.
How difficult was it to find an agent and publisher?
My agent came back to me on my first round of submissions, although many other agents rejected me. After that initial interest, I had to prove myself before he took me on by completing a couple of serious redrafts and having a few meetings to talk about my writing and my ambitions. I think an agent wants to know if they can work with you - and whether you can produce the goods, listen to criticism and whether you have a sense of what you want to achieve in writing. Finding a publisher was a similar experience- there were a few interested after the second draft and, again, I needed to do some rewrites.
Which came first the story or the characters and how difficult or easy was it to develop each?
The characters and story came together and changed together and have had many different incarnations. It was a long process of writing and re-writing. Somehow, in the middle of all that churn, the story and characters took shape. Some aspects of the characters and story become absolutely necessary. So, for me, it was a process of finding which parts of the story and character were absolutely essential and which could be discarded. It's amazing how much can actually be discarded!
Being set in New York, American Devil must have taken some completion from a research point of view especially as one of the strong aspects is its sense of place?
It did take a long time to pull together the different aspects of creating a believable story. It was not just the place and setting but the language and the working of the NYPD. So it took a great deal of reading and research over a long period. I hope, though, that this isn't really evident in the book. You want just enough detail to let readers build the picture - too much and you tire of the pictures.
“People watching” seems to have taken a sizeable chunk of where the story came from?
People watching was just the trigger for an initial idea. But people watching can help you to imagine things more vividly The rest comes from trying to work ideas through logically and from the imagination or reading widely.
Harper and Levene are such well rounded characters, are they based on anybody you know?
No, they're really not based on anyone I know. I think they have aspects of many people because they start their journey as archetypes with just the key features of a type of person (strength, determination, dysfunction) and then they start to grow detailed lives around those key characteristics. I'm sure some bits and pieces of detail are taken from real life, but the archetypes belong to everyone. Do I know a Tom Harper? No.
How did you unearth the psychological analysis aspects of American Devil?
I thought about it a lot! I have an interest in psychology, so I used what I knew and also gleaned bits and pieces from articles and newspapers. I also listened to lectures and read books. You take in a great deal of information when you start researching abnormal psychology and somehow all of these ideas get reduced down to something coherent. You wait until something captures your interest and then explore that idea in fiction.
Do you have a writing routine or any superstitions when it comes to writing?
My writing routine is - whenever I can! With a full time job and two children, my routine is to try to find some time every day even if it's just an hour. That usually means early morning or later in the evening. When I'm writing a book I try to get at least 1,000 words down on paper each day. And I don't have superstitions when it comes to writing - I couldn't afford that luxury at the moment!
You were born in Liverpool (I’m based on Wirral but was born there and work in the city every day). There are a great number of writers and artists from the city, did it provide any influence on your wanting to be an author at all and how often do you get to visit?
Yes, Liverpool is an incredibly vibrant and creative city and that helps shape you. It is creatively very enabling, whether you're an established writer or someone looking to get some poem or play put on. The city always seemed interested in the arts and it is full of artists, musicians, playwrights, poets and writers, which creates a real buzz about culture.
What three pieces of advice would you give to aspiring authors?
I still see myself as an aspiring author. A rookie. So I'm the one still on the look out for advice from other writers. Reading writers' blogs was and is, for me, very helpful. All the advice is out there from writers, agents and publishers, it's just very hard, when you're on the outside of the business, to really take on board that advice. Anyway, to answer your question, I'd offer the following three comments:
- Get involved. Join writers groups, critique groups, writing websites to try to understand the nature of the publishing world and see your work as an outsider would. Publishing is a business and you have to prove you can make writing your profession so get others to read your work and make comments. But regardless of the comments, always keep writing!
- Don't give up. The people who get published (apart from the lucky ones) have been trying for years. They are the ones who don't give up, especially in the face of rejections. They may have written many books before they are taken up by a publisher. So keep going...
- Enjoy the writing process. It's not just about getting a deal. Writing is either a fundamentally important part of how you live your life or it's not, and if it is, enjoy it. Write the story you want to write - the one that excites you. Writing has always given me the deepest satisfaction and that hasn't changed from the decades as an unpublished writer to the half year as a published writer.
Which authors do you find most inspiring and what are you currently reading?
I'm reading several books at once at the moment - in crime and thrillers, I'm reading Cody McFadyen's Shadow Man, Harlan Coben's Caught and Jim Thompson's The Killer Inside Me. I think I like keeping multiple story lines going in my head at once. Most inspiring recently was Jo Nesbo's The Snowman. I loved the scale of that novel as its crimes stretch over a long period and Harry Hole is, of course, a great character. In terms of inspiration, I find that almost every crime writer is inspiring in some way. I always find a scene or character in someone else's book that really excites my imagination. Reading a book, if you ask yourself - what would you take from that book?, there's always something of value. So, I can get my inspiration from everywhere.
As you were writing American Devil and when it got accepted, did you find it necessary to be thinking of books 2 & 3 or were you totally focussed on book 1 all the way through the process?
As I was writing 'American Devil' I worked out an outline for three further books. These were only sketches and lacked fine detail, but it gave me a sense of the series to think about what might lie ahead. Some of these outlines will make it into fully fledged stories, but some might - on closer inspection - lack the legs to sustain a full length thriller. That said, these ideas didn't distract me from the writing of 'American Devil' as that was a case of total immersion. Some ideas and storylines which didn't make it into the final cut may also appear in later books.
What was it that that got the writing bug to bite?
In this particular story it was finding a copy of James Patterson's 'Along Came a Spider' in a hotel room while on holiday and then walking around the streets with a mind full of thriller and crime ideas, watching people and asking those 'what if' questions. In that mind frame a certain person will catch your interest and you will just start creating the scenarios which lead to the book.
But what got me writing in the beginning was the enjoyment of language and just creating stories. I think the first thing I tried in this genre was a take-off of a Mickey Spillane, Mike Hammer story. I loved the gritty feel to the language and the city setting. It was very different from what we were reading in school at the time and it really captured my imagination.
What’s next for Oliver Stark?
I'm writing the next book in the Tom Harper and Denise Levene series at the moment. It's great to get back into these characters and see where they are heading and how they're developing. Harper's facing a new case and a very different kind of killer. I hope you'll be able to read more next April!
Chris High's book review of American Devil
More information can be found at: http://www.oliverstark.co.uk