Friday, May 2, 2008
Q & A with Marty Waites
We speak with Martyn Waites, author of the Joe Donovan novels.
Q: What makes Joe Donovan different from other PI's?
Firstly, that he's not really defined as a PI. He's an information broker. Secondly, that he doesn't act alone. He's got the rest of Albion, his organisation, with him. But he is traditional in many senses. The over-riding arc of the series is him searching for his missing son. Along the way he takes on Jamal, a black street kid, who becomes his surrogate son. The other two Albion members are equally scared. Peta is an ex-policewoman and recovering alcoholic turned private eye. When her business goes under she joins up with Donovan bringing Amar, her partner and technical whizz kid, with her. He has his own set of problems, mainly to do with drugs. Together the four of them form a kind of dysfunctional family unit and the novels are as much about them reaching some kind of compromise with themselves and their own personal demons as much as the cases they work on.
Q: What are your thoughts on the psycho sidekick in PI novels?
Well Donovan doesn't have one (unless you count Peta) so I suppose that says it all, really. I think they exist to get the hero off the hook. So that the novel can be filled with violence and death but the hero figure can be relatively untroubled by it. It's a writer having their cake and eating it, telling a moral story but squeezing in as much bloodshed and violence as possible. When they're done well - such as Walter Mosley's Mouse or James Lee Burke's Clete Purcell they can genuinely add another layer of depth, another dimension to the book. When they're used as described above, I tend to switch off.
Q: Do you do a lot of research?
I write about things that make me angry, or that I want to understand more. I don't like to shy away from important issues. But I tend to do my actual research after I've written or during. I don't like it getting in the way of what I'm working on. However, having said that, I do visit locations that I'm going to be using in a book, take photos, make notes, etc. And then I'll go away and let that place settle in my imagination before it can be recreated in my novel. The recent books have included people trafficking, selling children for sex, the far right and Islamic extremists. I do talk to people if I need their specialist knowledge and I have a network of people who can get me into places I wouldn't otherwise be allowed to go. However having said all that, I still think the most important research is that of the human heart. Ultimately it's all facts and opinions. If you don't create good characters and have them behave as well rounded human beings, if you don't fearlessly examine your own emotional resonses, no amount of external research is going to save your book.
Q: You like comic books, just like I and my protagonist Noah Milano do. What makes comic books so attractive?
I grew up reading comic books. Where as some kids were schooled in the classics, I studied the holy trinity of Stan Lee, Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko. I learned so much from them in terms of storytelling, visual impact, everything. In fact, at school I wanted to be a comic illustrator but I wasn't good enough. Later on I came across Will Eisner whose work I still revere, and Alan Moore who changed my mind completely about the medium. I was really lucky to be coming up when comics were really coming into their own and developing their own unique narratives and languages of communication somewhere between film and prose but taking the best bits of both and making something completely new. I love the fact that now writers and artists are proudly working in that medium and that they don't have to justify it as some kind of fine art slumming. In fact, I would love to be a comics writer. Couldn't think of anything better.
Q: Has your writing changed a lot over time?
I think it's gone through phases and even within those phases there have been phases. My first three books all featured Stephen Larkin, a burnt out investigative journalist. I look back on these as my apprenticeship where I developed my own voice, learned how to write, tell stories, create characters and hopefully make the reader laugh, cry and think. Then there was Born Under Punches and The White Room which have come to be known as the Secret Histories. These are the books I became a writer to write and I'm still inordinately proud of them. They weren't really crime novels as such, more mainstream literature utilising the tropes of crime fiction. Then came the Donovan series which is where I am now. The latest one, White Riot is the best yet, I think. I feel I've successfully managed to fuse the depth of the Secret Histories with the pace and verve of a crime novel. I'm very pleased with it.
Q: How do you promote your books?
As loudly as possible! Before I was a writer I was an actor so reading aloud in front of an audience holds no terror for me. I love doing readings and talks (God, I can talk . . .) and will do them whenever I'm asked. I've recently been doing some events with Shiela Quigley and Ken McCoy, two British writers, as well as events with Laura Wilson and Natasha Cooper. I'm also doing some stuff with Ray Banks too. I always think that if I can get an audience to come hear me, I can sell them books. It's a bit of a slow and laborious way, but I'm good at it.
Q: Do you have any favorite Sons of Spade yourself?
Well apart from Spade himself, there's Hammett's Continental Op. I'm a big Hammett fan, same with Chandler. They were the guys who got me started. There's also Ross MacDonald who I love. I'd even go so far as to say he's a better writer than either of them. Pelecanos and Lehane came along and reinvigorated the genre, also Walter Mosley and James Lee Burke. I love Burke. I don't think he's capable of writing a dull sentence. He's the writer I want to be when I grow up. And Mosley's Little Scarlet is one of the best PI novels ever. I also have a real soft spot for Arthur Lyons' Jacob Asch. Really sad when he died recently. I've read the lot.
Q: In the last century we've seen new waves of PI-writers, first influenced by Hammett, then Chandler, Macdonald, Parker, later Lehane. Who do you think will influence the coming generation and in what way?
I think James Lee Burke will (he certainly has with me) because he's demonstrated time and time again that crime writing, and PI literature in particular, is not second rate literature. He's often criticised for writing the same novel over and over again, but god, what a novel! People used to say that about Ross Macdonald but it didn't stop him being brilliant. Burke is the same. His work is so complete, there's everything in there.
Q: Libby Hellman came up with the following question: why did you choose the PI vehicle through which to tell a crime fiction story, as opposed to a police procedural, amateur sleuth tale, or thriller?
I think it kind of chose me in a way. When my publisher asked me for a new series they gave me a shopping list of things they did and didn't want. One of the things they wanted was a detective figure but not a policeman because they thought they had been done to death. I agreed with them - I don't mind reading other people's police detectives but the thought of me researching and writing one just seemed like a recipe for boredom. But I had a bit of a problem because to my mind, with one or two noble exceptions (Ray Banks springs to mind), the PI character doesn't work in Britain because we don't have that kind of lone gunslinger mentality. So I had to make him operate as a PI in all but name. I came up with the idea of him being an information broker and although he does some of the stuff the traditional PI does, I kept the lines that he operated on deliberately vague, or I should say open, so I can use him as I see fit.
Q: What questions should we ask every PI writer we interview and what is your answer?
Oh god . . . Do you think that there is still space in the PI genre for it to expand and grow, or is it just a collection of stylistic tics left over from the last century? I suppose my answer would be naturally defensive. Yes, it can still grow as a genre, and I think that Joe Donovan, information broker with his dysfunctional family unit, is proof of that. But then I would say that, wouldn't I?