evseymour

Word on the Wire

Month: July, 2015

IN THE PSYCHIATRIST’S CHAIR.

A couple of weeks ago I asked the question: ‘Are writers social oddballs?’ This elicited quite a response so I thought I’d expand on it. In the last piece, my closing comment was this: The only extra thing to chuck into the mix is that individualism, tenacity and determination are hallmarks shared by the best main protagonists. The brain behind the pen also shares those attributes because, without them, writers would do something a lot more safe and sensible. So are writers a breed apart? Do they feel more deeply, get exercised about injustice more frequently? Do they have soaring highs and unfathomable lows? In other words, are they programmed on a different emotional setting to ‘civilians’?

I once heard Nicci French say that the reason crime fiction is so popular is that everyone believes his or her own life is like living in a thriller. I’m not sure the ‘everyone’ tag applies. I know plenty of people who seem to puddle along untroubled by the vicissitudes of life and barely break a sweat when, for example their house sale/holiday/business deal falls through. ‘Seem’ is probably the operative word, but this brings me straight back to the disposition of the individual concerned. If you’re of a benign persuasion, you’ll weather stormy events a little better than those who won’t bend with the proverbial breeze. Good for your mental health, for sure, but where’s the drama in that?

You see, I think only those with a strong dramatic streak can write great drama. Put another way, you have to care and be seen to care. Some might argue that a robust moral compass is a pre-requisite for writing crime fiction.   I actually think a strong grasp of psychology is more important. An understanding of the wide spectrum of human behaviour, all those (not fifty) shades of grey and the motivation behind why people do what they do, is essential if you’re going to strike that essential note of authenticity. So does that mean that science fiction writers are more cerebral and romantic fiction authors are more in touch with their passionate side? Are comedy writers a laugh a minute? Do writers of Westerns don cowboy boots and Stetsons, and spy writers grey raincoats and strained expressions to get into the writerly groove? And, ahem, where does that leave those writers who pen X-rated sex romps? Nobody is suggesting for one second that, in order to craft crime fiction, you have to rob a bank, or worse, although I dare say it would definitely lend a healthy dose of credibility to a story if one did.

I firmly believe that writers really do have heightened senses. It probably accounts for the high rates of depression suffered by those who create. Only the truly confident escape feelings of low self-esteem and the occasional sense that, not only is your work trash, but you are too.   The trick is to translate those inner feelings of self-doubt, rage or disillusionment at the world and make them work for you. Faking it won’t wash. Sure, cool-headed individuals can and do write powerful fiction, but I bet they are in the minority.

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MISTRESSCLASS

With my book doctor hat on, I’m fond of saying to writers: ‘If you want a masterclass on how to write an action adventure/spy fiction/psychological thriller, read no further than Lee Child, Gerald Seymour or Nicci French.’ With plenty of top flight authors from which to choose, I don’t always name these writers but they often come top of my list. Well, I’ve just got a new ‘Mistress’ to add to the genre and, for me, she’s in a class all of her own: Tana French.

I read her debut novel, ‘In The Woods’ when it was first published and loved it, but I can be horribly fickle when it comes to keeping faith with writers so I hadn’t read her subsequent novels. I blame it on too many authors and not enough time, not that this deterred me when I was sent a review copy of ‘The Secret Place,’ French’s latest novel.

The basic outline is as follows: Chris Harper is a senior schoolboy murdered in the grounds of a girls’ boarding school. One year on, the case has gone cold until Detective Stephen Moran is handed a photograph with a message written on it: ‘I know who killed him.’ It’s down to Moran and his boss Antoinette Conway to have a last shot at nailing a killer.

Honestly, it’s difficult to know where to start with French. Her writing is so astonishingly brilliant that you want to munch up every word and read every sentence at least three times.   The way in which she captures the way in which teenage girls behave, taunt and speak en masse is a triumph in its own right. Deeply unsettling, I was unsettled – particularly as I’d had a lousy time at boarding school myself, admittedly ‘back in the day’. French knows exactly how to create that particularly febrile hothouse atmosphere peculiar to close-knit educational establishments; her grasp of the strange intimacy that bonds young women, with vows made and broken, are faithfully portrayed. She maintains suspense with a vice-like grip. Finely plotted, her story oozes psychological insight. Police procedure is given a seriously new twist while remaining utterly authentic. She puts creep into creepiness and sparkle in the craic. In short, French doesn’t put a foot wrong and I found myself helplessly flipping those pages and wishing my train journey – where better to read – would last until I turned the blistering and exquisitely written final page.  Another storming novel from Hodder…

ARE WRITERS SOCIAL ODDBALLS?

Recently, a good writer friend of mine asked the above question. My initial response was to smile. Anyone who has attended one of those literary festival/crime writerly gatherings recently would think that authors are extremely social creatures – you only have to look at how hard it can be to get a drink at the bar.   But is time spent yattering at public events the best yardstick?

After a bit of thought, I responded to my friend a tad philosophically: ‘Creative types live in dual worlds. Half solitary but, when promoting their work, half singing and dancing.’ Put like this, to outsiders we must appear to be inconsistent, fickle individuals. And let’s not forget that crime writers are, by definition, attracted to the sinister side of life. ‘Normal folk’ would think us round the twist with our dark imaginings, if only they could take a trip inside our minds, so maybe we’re social oddballs after all.

As for the solitary side to which I referred, it’s quite hard to explain to ‘civilians’ how all consuming, dare I say obsessive, writing stories can be. Most writers are aware of that moment in a conversation when you realise that you’ve not listened to a word spoken because your focus is entirely on a plot problem. It’s not that writers are disinterested in others – far from it; it’s just that we live in a strange parallel universe. That ‘not really here’ glaze in the eye, descending at a moment’s notice, has often been mistaken for boredom or, worse, snootiness. Personally, I’m a terror for eavesdropping on conversations, which hardly helps the cause.

Conversely, I’ve often found myself tuning out of a conversation only to home right back in with, no doubt a demon glint in my eye, as someone says something that stimulates a particular train of thought. It can be a bit startling for a conversationalist to suddenly become the focus of a writer’s attention when thirty seconds previously said individual has barely elicited a flicker of interest. Perhaps this accounts for the reason non-writers have peculiar ideas about authors. Common myths are:

1.  Writing is easy so why the ‘preciousness’?  This is usually followed by the comment: ‘Well, I’m sure I could knock up a novel but I simply don’t have the time/can’t be bothered.’

2.  A variation on number 1: If you know about marketing, the story will sell itself.

3.  All we need do is hang around and wait for the Muse to appear.

4.  We are all as rich as Croesus (or JKR).

So where does that leave us with the social oddball tag? All writers are amateur psychologists. It’s tricky to get inside a character’s head if you have no real sense of how people tick, or how they respond under pressure. In this regard, it’s vital for authors to socialise and interact. I once heard it said that ‘if you don’t love people, you’ll never make a good writer.’ There’s some truth in that, although I’m tempted to substitute ‘fascinated/intrigued by’ rather than ‘love’.

The only extra thing to chuck into the mix is that individualism, tenacity and determination are hallmarks shared by the best main protagonists. The brain behind the pen also shares those attributes because, without them, writers would do something a lot more safe and sensible. Social oddball? Chancer, more like.

THE CURSE OF THE PSEUDONYM

Having multiple names as a writer isn’t uncommon. It should be a breeze for someone like me because, a peculiarity within my birth family, we are all called by our middle names. If anyone were to shout out my unmentionable first name – they do in doctors’ surgeries and hospitals – I rarely respond. Add to this, in my case, a divorce, a reversion to my maiden name, and then a marriage, you can see how complicated things can get.   Certainly, in our ID sensitive, rules is rules, brave new world, it has led to a fair share of headaches when it comes to proving who I am.

My first novel, ‘Absent Light’ was published, using my maiden name: Isherwood. When it came to my agent cutting a deal with a new publisher, it soon became clear that they didn’t fancy the name. As, at that stage, I was writing ‘blokey’ spy novels with the lovely main protagonist, Paul Tallis, it was deemed a good idea to lose the reference to me as a woman completely, stick with a couple of initials instead, and use my second married surname. And so E.V. Seymour was born. It served me well for four novels.

Another change of publisher and, due to a host of factors that don’t need to be outlined here, I, and prior to J K Rowling’s decision to morph into Robert Galbraith, changed sex and became Adam Chase. Two books on, a big switch of genre to psychological thriller, ‘Beautiful Losers’, (due to be released by Midnight Ink on March 8th 2016) and, mercifully, I’m back to who I’ve been quite happily for the past seventeen years: Eve Seymour.

In a way, it feels like coming home. I always wanted to write psychological thrillers, but didn’t have the luck or, frankly, the skill back then, and found myself taking a different route to publication. None of it matters now.   Eve Seymour unplugged will do just fine.