A Conversation With Bill Kirton Author of The Darkness
Reviewer & Author Interviewer, Norm Goldman. Norm is the Publisher & Editor of Bookpleasures.com.
He has been reviewing books for the past fifteen years when he retired from the legal profession.
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Today, Norm Goldman Publisher & Editor of Bookpleasures.com is honored to have as our guest, Bill Kirton author of The Darkness. Over the years Bill has worn many hats as playwright, song and sketch writer for revues, novelist, short story writer, university lecturer, actor, director, and television presenter.
Good day Bill and thanks for participating in our interview
When did you first consider yourself a writer?
I’ve always written things, from very early on – silly stories and, bizarrely, attempts at plays. In fact, I was clearing out things a few years back and came across a crime play. I’d guess I was maybe 10 or 11 when I wrote it. Just 3 or 4 pages. It was hilariously bad, with none of the charm that young people’s writings so often have. Also, it reveals what a callow youth I was because I knew I needed an American-type name for my detective, so I called him Sex. I’m sorry to admit that that’s the truth. And the killer was caught because he left a red star at the scene of each crime and he had a red star sewn into his underwear. Hardly the work of a literary prodigy. But it just shows that writing was something I did from very early on.
So there wasn’t actually a time when I ‘considered myself a writer’. But I can still answer your question. I knew I was a writer when I heard other people saying I was. I started sending plays to the BBC and they sent them back, but always with encouraging comments – about the dialogue, characterisation, humour or something. And, when I was in my twenties, I was invited along to the Northcott Theatre in Exeter because a BBC producer had told the director that I was a playwright. The director showed me round. We met one of his production team, and he introduced me to him by saying ‘This is Bill Kirton. He’s a writer.’ It was the first time anyone had said that and I felt wonderful. So I suppose I thought it legitimate to consider myself a writer from then on.
I noticed you have worn many hats over the years. Which of the various professions has given you the most satisfaction and why?
Wow, how long have you got? That’s a hard one because the cliché answer is that I’ve enjoyed all of them – but for different reasons and in different ways. I taught at university before they became vocational factories churning out a ‘product’ (i.e. students). Education was a broader concept than it’s become today. The work consisted of reading great books, plays and poetry, researching things that interested me, discussing all these things with young, intelligent, interested people and getting paid for it. And sometimes, there was that wonderful feeling, in a lecture or tutorial, that I was really connecting, making a difference to the way someone thought about literature or life. It sounds pretentious but it wasn’t. And I don’t mean by that that I was putting my thoughts into their heads. It was more like helping them to recognise the thoughts that were already there.
In some ways, acting and
directing use the same skills. They involve dissecting a text,
sorting out its layers, meanings, getting inside it. They’re
totally absorbing pursuits. From the casting to the eventual
performance it’s always a process of discovery. You learn things
about the others in the play, about the characters they’re playing,
about the ideas the play provokes. And there’s a completeness about
it. I wrote in a recent blog that I don’t believe life has a
purpose or direction. It’s not a nihilistic stance, but just one
that seems to me self-evident. Nor is it pessimistic because, unless
you’re one of the multitude of unfortunates who are starving,
oppressed, etc., life is great.
But in a world without ultimate
meaning, art has its own, self-contained structures. So does sport.
So being in or directing a play lets you build a meaning, plot a
course which does have a destination. You start with fumbling,
half-formed ideas and together you build a unique structure.
You really have to connect with the others involved. It’s a wonderful feeling. In the end, I always used to feel that the actual performance was a necessary evil. It’s nice to get laughs or hear that amazing silence that tells you the audience is with you, but the organic process as the play’s growing is the real buzz for me.
The TV presenting was fun too, mainly because I got to do things I wouldn’t normally do – such as making a parachute jump, hang gliding, water skiing, driving a Formula 3 racing car. It wasn’t as demanding as the other things but it gave me some great experiences.
And this is going to sound contrived but the thing that gave (and gives) me most satisfaction is the writing – writing of any sort. It doesn’t have the obvious interactive nature that the other things do, but there is interaction. With your characters. And the satisfactions when you’ve done the best you can do with something are very deep. At a basic level there’s the pleasure of words and their rhythms, the pleasure of finding the right one, or of realising an image or symbol expresses exactly what you want it to – it’s like tasting the words. Then, in the wider context, there’s the loss of self that happens when you get into a story or novel or scene. You’re there with your characters but you’re not even aware of being an observer. When that happens (and it’s not all the time) I lose contact with me. I don’t have a name, a wife or family, a location. I sometimes look at my watch and I’m amazed to see that hours have passed as I’ve been jotting down what the characters have said and done. In a way, the ‘me’ has been absent. I guess it’s like when sportsmen talk about being ‘in the zone’. It’s a magical feeling.
As a follow up, how have you used the tools of your various professions in your writing of novels?
I suppose the most obvious one would be the academic discipline and my exposure to so much brilliant writing. I was in the French department, specialising mainly in 19th century literature – which meant Stendhal, Balzac, Flaubert, Zola – and all those amazing poets, Baudelaire, Nerval, Rimbaud. It also meant familiarity with dramatists such as Racine and Molière and, of course, the Theatre of the Absurd. Having not only to respond to their writings but actually look into the mechanics of how they achieved their effects must have done me a lot of good. In fact, as I was doing my PhD I often asked myself why I was bothering with it – but being forced to work within prescribed parameters made me concentrate properly on what I was thinking and needing to write whereas before then I’d just indulged myself – grandiose flourishes, flashy images, that sort of thing. I think subjecting yourself to any sort of discipline, especially an academic one, releases you in the end. You can still indulge your preferences but you’re more aware of when to rein them in and how to optimise their effects. (All of which, I realise, sets me up for a fall, when critics spot lapses or awkwardnesses in my books.)
I should also add that the acting and directing helps to hone your dialogue. You don’t let your characters speak in paragraphs; they talk over one another, their sentences tail off, their silences can be as expressive as their words.
What do you think makes a good novel?
God, Norm, these are hard questions. Harder when I think that I still get enjoyment out of Madame Bovary, which I’ve read countless times, but also out of many of today’s crime novelists. The first thing is that you have to believe what’s happening in the pages – even with sci-fi or fantasy novels. If you’re not interested in the characters, it’s not worth carrying on. You’ve got to care about them, worry for them, dislike them for what they do to others, pity them. Above all, you need to believe in their reality.
Next, the obvious one is that you have to want to know what happens. That, too depends on the characters and their interactions, but it also calls for some careful plotting – either to satisfy the reader by confirming their own predictions or to surprise them by the unexpected.
Then there’s that wonderful extra element that the better novelists achieve – a sort of layering which gives you the satisfaction of the story but also suggest undercurrents, significance just beyond your perceptions which lingers after you’ve finished reading and makes your mind keep returning to what’s happened or to an image because you know the meaning goes beyond its own immediate context. On the surface, novels like that are certainly about people, but they’re also about indefinable forces. Sometimes they even transcend the story.
It’s a great form. It gives you so much space in which to let things develop. You can create echoes between themes that bring together things which on the face of it are separate. You hear an animal scream in the woods as a man reflects on a love he’s just lost and you fabricate connections between them. And when I say ‘you’ there, I mean the reader. That’s another beauty of the form: the writer provides the raw materials and the indications but leaves room for the reader to do some work, create some patterns, draw his/her own conclusions. It’s a strange, but powerful intimacy between the two.
Do you ever suffer from writer’s block? What do you do about it?
Writer’s block, no: laziness, yes. If the sun’s shining, the temptation to go and mess around in the garden or drive into the hills and go for a walk is strong. But I know writer’s block is a serious problem for lots of people. In fact, I co-wrote a book called Just Write. It’s aimed at helping students to write essays, dissertations and so on and we touched on the problem there. There are lots of theories. The one that seemed to make most sense to me was, when the block occurs, just write anything. Sit at the keyboard or with the pen and paper and just write complete garbage, unrelated thoughts, words as they pop into your head. It doesn’t have to make sense and have a structure. It doesn’t have to be grammatically correct or spelt properly. All you’re doing is (mindlessly) loosening up what I think we called your writing muscles. By that I don’t mean the actual muscles of your fingers and arms, but the whole physiological thing that happens as we write, the messages flowing from brain to hands. Alternatively, stop trying to write, go away and do something totally different. Put writing out of your head.
What genre are you most comfortable writing?
Well, I became a crime writer by accident. My first novel was a comic one and the second was a thriller. In fact, it was a very early version of The Darkness – totally different from the published one. My agent sent that to a publisher who liked it but said they weren’t doing thrillers but did I write police procedurals. So I wrote one, they published it, and that was that. And once you work in that genre, it gets to you. You find yourself noticing things in your daily life that might be useful in plots. You’re cleaning your teeth, for example, and you start thinking ‘Hmmm, who could infect my toothbrush with some toxins?’ Or you’re popping a daily vitamin pill and wonder who might have added a nasty capsule of something to the jar. And your suspicions start with your family, but that would make for a predictable story, so you remember the friends you had round for dinner the previous evening, etc., etc. So I suppose your genre gets integrated into your life.
But it can also be slightly inhibiting. This summer, a historical crime novel of mine will be published. It’s called The Figurehead and it’s set in Aberdeen in 1840. But as I was writing it, the mutual attraction between the two central characters grew stronger and I found I was writing both a crime novel and a romance. In fact, my then editor, when she read an early draft, said I needed to make up my mind between the two. It was hard trying to tell her ‘Look, it’s not my fault. The two of them feel that way so there’s nothing I can do about it’.
The pleasures of writing a novel are different from those involved in writing a play. The novel has so much scope – the danger is of self-indulgence. But the play’s restrictiveness is challenging. It’s also liberating, especially with radio drama when all you have is what the characters say. When it works, that’s a wonderful medium. Very satisfying. And once the characters become who they are, the process is really like sitting with them and just writing down what they dictate. So I suppose that’s a long-winded way of saying that I get different kicks from different genres, and I feel privileged and lucky to have inherited the urge to write.
What do you see as the influences on your writing?
It has to be other writers – all of the ones I’ve enjoyed. Their characters are so evident in their style, from the people who wrote the books about dragons and fairies I read as a kid to the 19th century greats whose prose I pulled apart as a lecturer. I’m still learning. I sometimes read a book and am in awe of what the writer has achieved. There are writers whose artlessness is stunning – people such as David Mitchell and Michel Faber – and you close the book when you’ve finished it and you know you’ll never reach those peaks. But you learn tiny bits from particular passages, you retain an image or two, and you slowly realise how it’s worked, and you think ‘Hmmm, I could use that’. I’m not talking of plagiarism, but of getting insights into how words, contrasts, synergies work and finding your own way of exploiting them.
But also, at a more vulgar
level, I use my books to get revenge. I never base characters on real
people. I did try but it didn’t work. If you have a real life
character in mind, it prevents the fictional one from developing
naturally into who he or she is. So I’m influenced by the passion I
feel about a person or about the things people do. In fact, The
original spark from which The Darkness grew was a remark made by a
waiter. Many years ago, we were at a restaurant just outside Aberdeen
with some friends and the waiter who served us had a West Country
accent. I’m originally from the West Country myself and I said to
him. ‘You’re a long way from home’. His reply was ‘I needed
to get as far away as possible’.
I asked him why and he told me the horrible story of how his wife and two daughters had been killed by a hit and run drunk driver. The driver was eventually caught but sentenced to just 18 months, 12 of which he got off for good behaviour. ‘So that’s 2 months for each life’ said the waiter. And the desolation of the man stayed with me, and I wanted desperately to get some sort of revenge for him. And that’s what set me thinking about the whole issue of vigilantism. So the influences aren’t just literary. Sometimes they’re really visceral.
Did you work from an outline with your latest novel, The Darkness?
I tend not to use outlines as
such. I know the main events, the points and circumstances which will
redirect, refocus the narrative. I have a loose idea of the themes
which, at the early stages I’d find it very difficult to
articulate; it’s just a feeling. For me, the characters dictate the
intricacies of the plot. They do unexpected things, which I then have
to incorporate into the book. Once they’re all established, I’m
comfortable with the direction and I know I’ll bring them together
in the way I want. But, having said that, the main non-police
character in The Darkness had a surprise for me right at the end. I
don’t want to give anything away but I knew that, at some point, he
was going to have to make a decision which would mean that he was
either a goodie or a baddie. So, in the earliest drafts, I dodged the
issue by having the police solve the case before the decision time
But when that character had become a doctor (which he wasn’t in the earlier drafts), and when the themes had become more subtle than my original one of vengeance, I needed to let him make the choice. I felt that by excusing him from making a decision I was being untrue to him and to the story. But when the crunch time came, he didn’t do either of the things I’d thought he would. He came up with an entirely different solution which left the whole notion of goodie or baddie unresolved. In fiction, and in life, I’m not fond of predictability. I prefer the unexpected.
What was your secret in keeping the intensity of the plot throughout The Darkness?
I’m glad you feel that that’s what happens. It’s maybe connected with what I just said about predictability. A feature of crime novels is that they almost always lead to a resolution. It’s inevitable that the detective will solve the crime and loose ends will be tied up. The only issue really is how much damage will be done before he gets his man or woman. In this case, I think the deterioration of the doctor, his struggle with the morality of what he’s doing – these are the things which become more pressing as time goes by. So the question is whether my policeman, Jack Carston, will work it all out before the potentially horrendous climax. By switching between the slow progress of the investigation and the corrosive unreality of what’s happening in the doctor’s cellar and in his mind, I’m juxtaposing two crucial and mutually interdependent timelines. But I must add that I wasn’t – consciously at least – aware I was doing that when I was writing. That’s me the critic analyzing the mechanics of the final product.
What was the most difficult part of writing The Darkness?
Difficulty isn’t a word I’d use about the writing process. There are challenges to face, problems to solve, but there’s usually an exhilaration involved which washes away most negative associations. I suppose the main problem in this case was deciding how to establish the balance I wanted between law and justice. I really needed to create a definition of morality which didn’t fall into the normal categories. I was pleased when one reviewer wrote ‘be prepared to be manipulated and have your moral compass reset’ – that’s exactly what I had to do for myself and I hoped the reader would experience the same unease about what was happening. The darkness of the title gets into the doctor but also the policeman and, I hope, the reader.
How did you go about creating the character of Dr. Andrew Davidson in The Darkness?
Well, as I said earlier, in
the early drafts, he wasn’t a doctor. He was a policeman. But then
the story was slightly contrived and more a tale of personal
vengeance. The morality was more clear cut and it was simply a
question of someone taking the law into his own hands. Whether the
victims deserved it or not, it was a fairly black and white picture
and the perpetrator was definitely ‘wrong’ to do what he did. But
as I felt my dissastisfactions with it growing, I knew I wanted to
make the whole issue much more ambivalent. I wanted to make readers
feel uneasy about who they were empathising with, I wanted them to
question their own motives and impulses. And it made sense to make
the character a more respectable figure.
Not only that, but also make him someone whose main function was diametrically opposed to the nasty things he gets up to. So a doctor was an obvious choice. And Andrew Davidson is a good, caring doctor. My own GP is exactly that, so I asked him some questions about his job and, as well as answering them very fully, he recommended a couple of books written by GPs – so I knew I could get the authenticity I wanted. After that, it was just a question of putting the poor guy into the situation and making him suffer. (I mean Andrew, not my own GP.)
Has a review or profile ever changed your perspective on your work?
I don’t think so. Oh,
perhaps with one exception. Way back, as a result of writing an
academic article about how Flaubert used certain imagery, it occurred
to me that images of expansion and contraction would be useful in a
tale of a loveless marriage – when you’re in love, there are
endless possibilities, but marriage closes lots of them off, your
world contracts – that sort of thing. So I wrote a play which
chronicled the break-up of a marriage, the wife’s recognition that
she loves a lesbian friend, the husband’s preoccupation with his
work as a surgeon, and I cut between their stressful home life and
the surgeon chatting with a friend as he conducts an operation. And
that gave me the chance to talk about blood vessels contracting, the
difference between the main arteries and capillaries, etc., etc. So
expansion and contraction was everywhere.
One review of the play, in a major journal, began ‘This is a tiresome play about tiresome people’. And I knew he was right. I’d been so keen to impose my expand/contract structures on it that I’d inhibited the characters, made them speak my words, failed to give them the freedom they needed to become themselves. I’ve never done that since.
On the whole I’ve been lucky with my reviews. I don’t mind criticism. On the contrary, if it’s constructive and well supported, it’s useful. The sort I don’t like are those which use cheap shots, uninformed jibes or are simply showcases for the reviewer’s (supposed) wit and wisdom.
Where can our readers find out more about you and your works?
Well, there’s my website at www.bill-kirton.co.uk and, for my sins, I now write a sporadic blog. That’s something I hesitated starting because (once again) my laziness baulked at the idea of having to make regular contributions to it. But fellow writers said it was something we all have to do nowadays, so I try to make it interesting but I must confess that, every time I write, I think to myself ‘Who the hell cares what you think about this? And who’s got time to read all these blogs anyway?’ But it’s there and it’s at http://livingwritingandotherstuff.blogspot.com/
What is next for Bill Kirton and is there anything else you wish to add that we have not covered?
Interestingly (for me at least) The Darkness has helped me to see that there’s actually a progression in the three published novels in the Carston series. I’ve written two more and know exactly what the main plotlines are for the sixth and final one. So I now need to revisit the two as yet unpublished ones and write the sixth. I also have to write a sequel to The Figurehead. And I love the short story form so I’ll indulge myself by writing more of those. But if the sun shines, I’ll be in the garden.
Thanks once again and good luck with all of your future endeavors.
Click Here To PurchaseThe Darkness
Thanks Norm, It’s been a pleasure.