It’s publication day today, 5th July 2016, for Conrad Williams’ Sonata of the Dead and I’m delighted to have a publication day interview with Conrad. Sonata of the Dead is published in e-book and paperback by Titan and is available for purchase on Amazon, Waterstones and directly from the publisher as well as from all good book shops.
Sonata of the Dead
Searching for a lost daughter who doesn’t want to be found. Even as he recovers from his near fatal encounter with an unhinged killer, PI Joel Sorrell cannot forget his search for Sarah. He receives a tip that photographs of her have been found at a crime scene, where a young man whom Sarah knew when they were children has been horribly dismembered. Finding a link between the victim and an underground writers group, Joel follows the thread, but every lead ends in another body. Someone is targeting the group, and it is only a matter of time before Joel’s daughter is run to ground.
An Interview with Conrad Williams
Hi Conrad. Thank you so much for agreeing to answer some questions on my blog about your writing and Sonata of the Dead in particular.
Firstly, please could you tell me a little about yourself?
I’m a writer living in the north-west of England. I’ve been in love with words all my life and wanted to be a novelist for as long as I can remember. I worked for a while as a freelance journalist, which is how I met my wife. We have three sons. When I’m not writing, I’m trying to play guitar, taking photographs, lusting over stationery and watching good TV.
When did you first realise you were going to be a writer?
I was seven years old, in a class at school. We were told to write a story and I had so much fun I didn’t want to stop.
What are your writing routines and where do you do most of your writing?
I prefer to work in the mornings. I usually write straight on to the screen, but a lot of the time I’ll take a nice fountain pen and a notebook and some headphones and go and work in a café while listening to soundtracks. I’ll write between 1000 – 4000 words a day if things are going well.
If you hadn’t become an author, what would you have done instead as a creative outlet?
I imagine, had the dark stuff in my head not been released through the safety valve of writing, that I’d probably be a serial killer. No… I always harboured dreams of being a marine biologist. So I probably would have poured all my efforts into that.
(Crikey – just as well you’re a writer then!)
Which aspects of your writing do you find easiest and most difficult?
Easiest: Coming up with titles, character names… unimportant stuff like that. Hardest: getting started. I’m like a crocked engine on a cold morning sometimes. Coffee helps. Deadlines too. I’m a terrible procrastinator.
(Procrastination seems to be a pre-requisite for many writers.)
You’re quite prolific and seem very driven. How far is writing an obsession and how far is it just a job?
It’s all I’ve ever wanted to do. It’s never been a job, and I hope it never feels like one. It’s something I do that I get paid for. I see the money as a bonus. I was writing before I realised people might pay you for your stuff. And as a writer, you never switch off. I’m always thinking of sentences and plots and characters, often when I really ought to be concentrating on something else. The downside of writing, especially the kind of stuff that I’m involved in, is that you can’t not look at bad things. Tragedies and disaster are material. Graham Greene once said that there’s a splinter of ice in the heart of every writer and I think that’s right. That’s essential. I’ll empathise and sympathise, and it’s heartfelt, but there’s always a part of me nagging at the back of my head saying: use that, use that.
How do you go about researching detail and ensuring your books are realistic?
There’s no secret to research. It’s all there if you know where to look for it. I think the trick is to hold back on the details. It’s very tempting to load your writing with any facts you’ve learned but it’s a form of authorial intrusion. You’re saying to the reader: Look at all the work I did.
Sonata of the Dead is the second in your PI Joel Sorrell series. What made you move away from the horror genre for this set of books?
You know, I’m not altogether sure I did move away. In many respects, this series is darker than some of the horror fiction I write. The characters are bleaker, their actions more unpleasant… I’ve argued before that there’s little difference between the genres. Crime is horror.
What similarities and differences do you find in writing crime and horror genres?
Having said the above, the main difference is that crime writing is rooted in reality (unless you’re writing a supernatural crime novel of course…). Everything that happens is underpinned by real emotions, motives and comes with its own type of internal logic. In a supernatural novel, you have a certain latitude to introduce left field elements, but in a crime novel you have to play by the rules.
Having written novels, novellas and short stories, what three elements do you think they all have to have in common to be successful?
You have to, hopefully, have a good story. That’s key. You’re not going to get away with it for too long if you’re relying solely on pretty writing. Then engaging characters and kick-ass writing skills.
How did you develop Joel as a character for this series? Had he been brewing in your head for a while or did you make a conscious decision to create him? Did you write a full character profile or has he developed organically?
I submitted a short story for an anthology called Future Cops (part of the publisher Robinson’s Mammoth series) back at the turn of the century. I wanted to write about a smart-arse PI. It was set in the future, so I gave him a futuristic name – Rad Hallah – and had him working the Needles, these skyscrapers in a busy city. He was one part Rick Deckard, one part JJ Gittes and one part Vyvyan Basterd (from The Young Ones). At the same time I was reading Derek Raymond’s Factory novels and I knew I wanted to do something similar. Very dark, very bleak, profane… A couple of years later when I came to write the first novel, I kept the character of Rad Hallah but changed his name.
When you’re writing, how far does the psychological aspect of your narratives affect you personally?
Not often, but it’s noticeable when I’m writing about children in peril, or random violence, or the decay of relationships. These are all things that scare me witless. To some extent I drive them out of my system by writing, but they’re themes that keep cropping up in my work, so I guess my purging skills aren’t the best.
You’ve won prestigious prizes for your writing. How far does that enhance your writing experience and how far does it add extra pressure?
No pressure. I think that comes from within. Awards are always a nice thing, but it’s important not to make too big a fuss of them. I like to look at them on my bookcase and they are like a pat on the back, a signal that you’re kind of doing the right thing. But it’s fleeting. It’s for work done. The WIP is paramount, not the bauble you might or might not get for it. And there are plenty of amazing writers knocking around that have never won an award.
You’re writing is very cinematic. How do you achieve that effect?
Thank you… but I don’t know. I’m visual, I guess. I like description. I like setting the scene. I enjoy trying to turn location into a kind of character. I wish the people who make decisions in the movies read my stuff and came to the same conclusion as you…
Without any plot spoilers please, what can we expect next for PI Joel Sorrell?
Hell is Empty, which is out in November, finishes this sequence of novels in which he’s searching for his daughter. It’s my ‘Daughter’ trilogy. Or rather, my ‘Missing Girl’ trilogy (which ticks a box in the commercial column). Actually I’ve always thought of the trilogy as the ‘Derelict’ books because they each feature a shattered building. Joel finds himself sent on what he suspects is a wild goose chase and he has to find a path to his quarry while being targeted at every turn.
Do you have other interests that give you ideas for writing?
I’m currently a purple belt in karate, so I’m looking for ways to bring that into my fiction (Joel Sorrell has been using a few moves, although he’s not as into it as I am). I also play guitar and managed to transfer the frustration of trying to learn into a recent short story called The Devil’s Interval.
When you’re not writing, what do you like to read?
I prefer to read non fiction when I’ve got a novel on the go. I especially like books about exploration, especially in cold places, or involving mountains. If I do read any fiction, it’s got to be something totally different from whatever I’m working on. So at the moment I’m reading The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. If anything, it’s taught me that there isn’t enough whimsy in my life.
How did the cover image for Sonata of the Dead come about and what were you hoping to convey (without spoiling the plot please!)?
I didn’t really have much say in the cover, but I like the way they’ve done the title and the gritty urban suggestion of it. There’s definitely impact in all three.
If you could choose to be a character from Sonata of the Dead, who would you be and why?
There’s a female character, a writer, who is known as Odessa (the writers in the group are known by their code names). I think she’s pretty sassy.
If Sonata of the Dead became a film, who would you like to play Joel Sorrell?
I’ve always had Paddy Considine in mind whenever I write about Joel Sorrell. There’s something vulnerable about him, but something steely too.
If you had 15 words to persuade a reader that Sonata of the Dead should be their next read, what would you say?
Sex, vodka, car chases, vertigo, bloody typewriters, tattoos, vodka, graphology, cats, nightmares, gags, thrills, vodka.
Thank you so much, Conrad, for your time in answering my questions.