In keeping with the spirit of the Tete Beche book they've both published today, Fahrenheit authors Jo Perry & Derek Farrell took it in turns to interview each other.
First up, Jo has some questions for Derek
Jo : The novella: Have you written a novella before? What are your thoughts about the novella form vs. the short story and vs the novel? Is there a unique pleasure that only a novella can deliver, and if so, what is it?
Derek: I love reading short form fiction; novellas, short stories, flash fiction, love them all. But I’ve never really been able to hook into how to write those types of thing until a year or so ago, I decided to revamp my website (derekfarrell.co.uk) and wanted to offer subscribers to it a free book. I wanted a book that (a) I could be proud of and (b) that would be in keeping with the style of the Danny Bird Mysteries. It also had to be something I could do in a few weeks, so the Novella seemed a perfect option.
Basically, if a Novel is a Long-Job Con where you lull the reader into believing you as you deliver them towards a payoff you’ve already decided, a Novella (to me) is a bank job: Go in. Do the Job. Get out. Don’t hang around.
So when, a few months later, the lovely people at Fahrenheit Press asked me if I had something I wanted to submit for their new Tete Beche range 69Crime, I said yes. Instantly. And then went back to my notebooks looking for that story that popped out at me from my ideas list. And it had to be a STORY. I felt there was no space to slowly build the mystery; I had to go in, and go straight to the story.
Jo : And what were the challenges you faced placing characters you've developed deeply over four novels in a short form?
Derek: Including the characters from an ongoing series wasn’t too difficult. I think some people assumed I would submit a completely different story – a mini standalone – but that was never even on my agenda. This was an opportunity to experiment with the structure of a Danny Mystery, but it was still always going to be a Danny mystery, which meant the usual cast of characters would be present. A Danny Bird Mystery is about the family and community around him as much as it’s about Danny, so they’re all there. I think I made it work, but I really can’t wait to hear from readers when it’s out.
Jo : Your characters in Death of a Sinner grapple with secrets. And to go beyond Sinner, the mysteries you construct so deftly and wonderfully depend on secrets coming to light. What are your writing secrets, i.e. do you have rituals, routines, soundtracks, foods, superstitions, trusted sources of inspiration when you’re stuck?
Derek: I used to answer this question by saying I had to write a first draft on a train, and that when I wrote at home I had to have a scented candle and appropriate music and you know what? As I’ve gotten older those things are less true each time.
I write when I can and how I want to, and the key thing is to write.
As for Inspiration: I’m inspired by people, by families, by ‘what if’s.’
The inspiration for “Death of a Sinner” came from necessity, and after that it was – as it always is – a case of asking “What if?”
What if the main character on a reality TV show was a monster of epic proportions? A bully since childhood. A bully today. A narcissistic monster with no sense of self awareness? Obviously, one didn’t need to head off to TV to see assholes like that. The daily news is full of them (one or two in particular).
And then it was a case of asking “what if everyone in their circle hated them with a vengeance? What would that feel like?” And I went from there.
Oh, and in answer to: “What do you do if you’re stuck?” my answer is: Just keep writing. You might write some awfull mess, but you’ll be writing and the alternative – not writing – makes it very hard to ever break that block. Put simply: Don’t get stuck, but don’t expect everything to be publishable. Just. Keep. Going.
Jo : Or put another way: Is there a secret sauce to the art of writing or is it just hard work?
Derek: It’s hard work. But it’s the most satisfying work I have ever done in my whole life.
Jo : Why the novel? Why mystery?
Derek: The novel because it’s the most natural (for me) way of telling a story. I like the narrative feel, and it’s what I grew up with, really. And mystery because when I was 3 my dad took me to the library and I borrowed a book called “Magnus Mouse and The Treasure Chest,” which was a mystery about the contents of a huge locked wooden box the titular rodent excavates from his garden.
By the time I was 8 I was hooked on a book by Anthea Goddard called “The Aztec Skull” about a young girl who escapes from a children’s home and discovers an empty country mansion with a secret museum in the basement and a mysterious Aztec Skull. I loved that book so much that – in the space of a year – I borrowed and read it six times.
And in between I became addicted to an American mystery series called “The Three Investigators” which were set in California and featured three young boys solving mysteries like “The Mystery of The Whispering Mummy.”
After that, I discovered Agatha Christie, Chandler, Hammet, Lawrence Block, Steven Saylor, Lindsey Davis, and on and on…
Put simply, it was never going to be anything but mystery.
Jo : Your amazing gift for sharp, funny, touching and very real dialogue makes me think that you could have been a fabulous playwright.
Derek: That’s so kind of you to say. I’d love to write a play; I’m a huge fan of the theatre. I have an idea that I’ve been stewing for a long time. It’s about – as all my stuff ultimately is – family, but it’s also about secrets (Surprise!) love, loss, grudges and the music of a singer-songwriter I adore. I’m going to be working on it late 2020 so who knows? By this time 2021 I could be a Tony Winner*
(*I won’t be)
Jo : What is it about mystery that engages and appeals to you as a writer?
Derek: I think this is a really important question.
There’s the usual answer that crime or mystery novels allow us to disrupt a world and then (unlike so often in reality) to restore order; to explain the root causes and resolve the errors. In real life, of course, shit happens ‘just ‘cos’ and peoples motives are so often stupid and irrational.
But I like the idea that it’s all about Drama. See, every story needs Drama. Without Drama it’s not a story, it’s a lecture. With Drama it’s made human. It’s made not only consumable but appetizing. And there’s little more dramatic than a breach of the social order (everything from petty theft through adultery to murder).
So the enduring fascination with Crime (or the threat of it) means that when we write crime novels we should never lose sight of the fact we’re following in the footsteps of Shakespeare (“Macbeth,” without the murders, is a story about a man whose social-climbing wife bitches at him endlessly) Hemmingway (“To have and Have Not,” without crime, is a book about an average Depressive in the Great Depression) and even Sophocles (“Antigone” is a crime story where the ‘crime’ is to behave as a human being in a time of war and inhumanity. I’m rather fond of that one).
And yes, I did put myself in the footsteps of Shakespeare, Hemmingway and Sophocles. Some way behind them, but all part of the same Union of The Blank Page.
Jo : What would you love to tell new readers, unfamiliar with your work, before they open one of your books? What do you want them to know? About you and about your characters/series? What have I missed?
Things to know about me and the Danny Bird Mysteries: There are four Novels in the seres -
- Death of a Diva
- Death of a Nobody
- Death of a Devil
- Death of an Angel
- and two Novellas (Novellae?) – ‘Come to Dust’ (available free from derekfarrell.co.uk) and ‘Death of a Sinner’ (available as a Tete-Beche with the wonderful ‘Everything Happens’ by Jo Perry).
My books are contemporary crime novels centering around a grimy pub in South London, it’s staff and regulars, and focusing on the investigative endeavours of the Pub’s nominal landlord and his aristocratic best friend. They’re inspired by Golden Age mysteries but firmly embedded in the modern world, and they’ve been described as “Fresh,” “Moving,” “Like The Thin Man meets Will & Grace.” “Like M.C. Beaton on MDMA,” and - by no less an expert than Monty Python’s Eric Idle – as “Quite Fun.”
I’m married and live with my husband in West Sussex. We have no cats dogs goats or children, though we do have every Kylie Minogue record ever recorded. Twice.
These were brilliant Questions, Jo. Thanks for being so interested in me and my work, and for writing some of my favourite books ever. I’m excited and honoured to be paired with you in this Tete Beche.
And now Derek has some questions for Jo
Derek : Okay, my turn now, Let’s start with your pedigree: You’ve been a professional writer for some time. What sort of things have you written, and what have been your favourite both from a structural and a thematic perspective?
Jo : I don’t have a pedigree. I’m a mutt. I am the daughter of a working class East Ender father whose education ended at fourth grade, who educated himself and became a literate comedy writer, and a brilliant, funny mother who was deeply serious literary reader.
I have no idea why, but I wrote poetry from elementary school on. I entered college as an art major but was still writing poems. Art was okay—especially the people––as long as I wasn’t required to draw. Alas, they required students to produce competent pen and ink drawings. Meanwhile the poetry thing was consuming. I attended poetry readings at the Unicorn Bookstore and used it as my library, my alternate university, and my hangout. The Unicorn also printed broadsides. I submitted a poem about Jerry Lee Lewis, they printed it (moveable type on beautiful cream paper), gave the broadsides away free and taped one in the window.
A professor saw it and invited me to become part of a small new university program. In that program I studied literature and poetry in small, intense seminars. The professor—a great poet named Alan Stephens--became my mentor. During graduate school I kept at poetry while writing my Ph.D. dissertation on the novels of Samuel Richardson.
I taught literature/writing classes, worked briefly as a university administrator and ended up writing for television with my husband. We were a team. Being on staff of a hit show at its peak taught me about pacing, dialogue, and when a scene must end. When my first child was born television/script writing stopped. I had another child. When time allowed, I wrote poetry, reviews, articles, a children’s book club column in the L.A. Times kids’ page. Later I wrote content for a testing company, i.e. those essays students read in order to have their “comprehension” tested. I experimented with writing children’s books, a mother-daughter book club guide.
It was only much later at 63, when my kids were established adults that I sat down and wrote Dead Is Better, a novel I was not prepared nor qualified to write. What happened was that a dead man and dead dog arrived in my consciousness. I heard Charlie’s voice and I knew Rose.
The thread through everything I’ve done is a voice—the voice in the writer’s head, the voice you hear on the page, the narrator’s voice, the voice of characters, and especially the first person voice in a lyric poem—like Charlie’s voice in the Dead series.
I had written and still write short stories. Writing short fiction for me is nothing like writing novels. Writing a short story is like completing a jigsaw puzzle. The the idea is clear before I begin.
Writing a novel is a hazier, conceptually-porous process, a cloudscape that after a long time solidifies into a world, into flesh and blood. Writing a novel is miraculous, exhausting, isolating, surprising, shocking, keeps my house a mess, and has thinned out my social life. Writing a novel is the most exciting, transformational, satisfying, moving and surprising thing--but while I’m ploddingly, painfully doing it, I’m sure that it’s only a matter of time before it does me in.
Derek : You’re well known for the Charlie & Rose novels which I’ve previously described as being like ‘The Wire’ meets the Tibetan Book of the Dead in their social spread and their detailed focus on the value of living (as learned by a man who’s now dead). They’re almost uncategorizable, but “Everything Happens” is a genuine, instantly recognisable Noir. It’s about desperate people doing increasingly desperate things and one knows almost from the first page that Jennifer is pushing that awful coloured Subaru to a date with destiny. It feels dirty and cinematic and instantly tense. What made you want to tell this story about these people?
Jo : My short stories are very dark. Very noir. I’m not sure why. Perhaps because the narrator of a noir tale has a lot more fun, or has the kind of fun I like best as a writer. I was asked to define noir on a panel and I said, “Noir is when bad things happen to fucked up people.” Real life is noir. Or noir is real life, take your pick. In noir - as in tragedy/real life - slyness and irony are all. To me, a short story is time bomb, each page ticking toward catastrophe. But that’s just me.
And when I was given the chance to write my first novella I jumped at it the way a person accepts an invitation to be dropped out of plane with a parachute that may or may not open. What a great thing, one thinks, until the earth hurtles to meet you and you think, Oh shit. A novel percolates in my head for a long time before I start it. With the novella I was starting on empty. But I wanted to tell a story about a woman.
Women are fed a diet of pure shit from birth to death. I wanted a woman to free herself of some of it. And I thought that the wedding industry deserves the same treatment as Waugh’s treatment of the death industry in The Loved One. I respect and love the death industry, despite the price-gouging. Death professionals provide a real service––they hold the living and the dead together at crucial moment and then ease and beautify the irrevocable breaking of the bond.
The wedding industry is the culmination of the fashion/makeup/lifestyle/house and home/self improvement/women’s magazine industries which do opposite of the death industry to their still living victims (women). Instead of putting a person back together and making them presentable, they disempower and deconstruct women one thought crime, exercise faux pas, one thigh, cheekbone, hair and pore at a time, until women are broken vessels.
Then they sell them shit to fill the void they created.
But being empty is a kind of freedom, isn’t it? Having nothing to lose is one kind of liberation. My female protagonist Jennifer is emptied, loses it all and then becomes a very different Jennifer.
Derek : ”Everything Happens” is really tightly plotted, so how did you go about writing it? To start: Are you a Plotter or a Pantser?
Jo : I write blind. I think that novel and novella writing are pretty much the same, although the awareness of word count is ever-present in a novella. I will outline specific sequences, especially toward the end. But my husband said something about this that I think is true: If you’ve already planned out everything, the writing becomes routine, like painting walls, just filling in. I’m sure I suffer more because I don’t outline, but stuff happens that surprises me, and characters I love show up and change the story that wouldn’t have in an outline. This happened with McGurk in Dead Is Beautiful. He began as a cameo. Now I’m writing a whole book about him.
Derek : The book has some genuine darkness and it feels like every one of the characters is working on multiple levels. Where on earth do these characters come from? And how much – on this book – did they drive the plot as opposed to the plot driving them?
Jo : Who said, “plot is character under pressure”? He/she was right. Character is plot in fiction and in life. And I guess the honest answer to the other one is that all the characters come from me and my experience. I am the villain and I am the victim. I am the man and the woman. But in terms of Everything Happens, I think the times when the nurturer in me and and my own credulity made it easy for people fuck me over inform the story: Jennifer’s feminine virtues got her in the mess she’s in. It felt really good to help Jennifer jettison those virtues.
Derek : The relationships between Jennifer and the men in her life are problematic, shall we say. And this novella is not about necessarily making people likeable or even about their story arcs leading to any self awareness. Most of the people in here are broken at the start and broken at the end. How challenging do you find the temptation to ‘fix’ people in your fiction?
Jo : Fixing people––ourselves, boyfriends, girlfriends, children, friends––is the big lie women are fed, i.e. if they love enough, understand enough, are kind and selfless enough, the testosterone-infused lump they married (because he was the only lump to ask them) will transform into a diamond. Or the lie that wearing a wedding dress that “makes one feel like a princess” will bibbity bobbity boo transform the wretch inside us into a Cinderella. Permanently. That our fates hinge on having slim thighs or an aquiline nose.
All novels/novellas and all lives are about awareness, about knowing something—a clue, who done it, who is it, who am I––and for the protagonist the truth is often about herself/himself. Real transformation in life and in fiction comes from revelation, not renovation.
The Charlie & Rose books are mostly based in Los Angeles and the surroundings. So why Las Vegas for “Everything Happens”? How important is location in your work, and what does the move of location tell us about the difference between a Charlie & Rose and this piece?
I love Las Vegas. My parents honeymooned there. It’s still the place to go to get married or unmarried. I used to assign architect Robert Venturi’s Learning From Las Vegas in my classes. It’s an illuminating treatise on art, not just Vegas. I started visiting Las Vegas a child. My grandmother would come along to watch me during the evenings when my parents would see shows, Noel Coward, Buddy Hackett, et. in the hotels.
In those days Vegas was sophisticated. Later when my husband and I would drive from Santa Barbara to Vegas for weekend break from university life, it was becoming kitschier—buffets, theme hotels––and I loved that. Then Vegas morphed into a family destination. We’d take our kids and they’d swim, see Blue Man Group, Penn & Teller, the sharks, the lions in the MGM lobby, etc. The last time we visited as a family we took turns aiming automatic weapons at targets in an indoor gun range. Don’t worry, this was under the supervision of a former military officer. So much is legal in Nevada and Las Vegas that is not legal anywhere else: certain guns, prostitution, gambling, etc.
I learned from that experience that everyone who thinks assault weapons should be legal should shoot one at a paper target under supervision. Doing so would insure that these weapons of terror would be banned from civilian ownership.
Oh, and I also learned that I am a really great shot.
And in this book – as in my “Death of a Sinner” – there’s an almost obsessive focus by one or more of the characters on romance and marriage. What made you want to write about this? And where did the darkness that these fixations engender in the book come from?
Marriage is the happy ending, right? Don’t bother checking in on Darcy and Elizabeth because they’re “living their best lives” and “being their best selves” at Pembroke, which, by the way, is to die for.
Samuel Richardson invented the marriage as reward in Pamela, the complete title of which is Pamela, or Virtue Rewarded. But what’s interesting is that in the next book, Pamela In Her Exalted Condition, Pamela has been scarred by smallpox. And she’s not as beautiful, alive or as interesting as she was pre-marriage. How smart is that?
And in Richardson’s magnificent tragic novel, Clarissa, Or The History Of a Young Lady, marriage is a financial transaction. Clarissa is to be “sold” by her family to a vile man because this exchange benefits them financially. Then a rich and powerful libertine exploits Clarissa’s crisis and tempts her to run away. She can never go back. She’s damaged goods. Ruined. An exile.
This rake, his name is Lovelace, pretends to shelter her but he imprisons her. His aim to possess her, to break her. He rapes Clarissa, but he cannot violate her spirit, her soul, her self. Virtue is punished, but Clarissa triumphs and death liberates her.
All the above is a roundabout way of saying that what happens after the ending is what interested me in Everything Happens and in the Charlie and Rose series.
And I think that too we and especially women still believe that marriage is a reward for virtue, that marriage is the universal solvent that makes all problems disappear, and that marriage guarantees happiness and stops time. These delusions only infantilize, paralyze and cripple us.
Derek : Lastly, this book is fucking CRAZY in the best possible way. There’s violence, gore, kidnapping, car crashes, barefeet escapes, and a general sense of mayhem seeping through the cracks in a dam which is not going to hold for much longer. It’s completely cinematic, and I can’t wait for the movie of this one.
I would love to know what the inspiration for all that was, and on a practical level how you actually designed and built the action sequences?
Do you use storyboarding? Or post-its? Or is it a movie you’re playing and replaying in your mind as you type? Or do you dispute the movie analogy and – as someone who’s written for both the visual media and for novels – feel the two demand a very different approach?
Jo : Violence is an efficient mode of expression. Pointed and clear. A perfect form of interpersonal communication and the most streamlined way of delivering a message—personal or societal. And in the novella “Mayhem seeping through the cracks”—is a perfect way to express it.
Las Vegas right now is “mayhem seeping through the cracks” made manifest. Fantasy/desperation/wealth/extreme poverty/winning/losing planted in the most spectacular and frightening, beautiful and extreme Martian landscape.
It can’t help but put us on edge and make us a little crazy.
As for where the violent sequences come from. I just record what the characters decide to do. I never story-board. Never outline. I do use post-its for notes to myself but I almost always lose them. And yes, I feel this is very visual and cinematic and could be expanded into a film.
I would love Amy Schumer as Jennifer.
Derek : Thanks Jo; it’s been fascinating to hear your thoughts.
Jo : Thank you for these thoughtful, fabulous questions!