as our guest Michael Donovan author of Behind Closed Doors, winner
of the 2012 Northern Crime competition, The Devil's Snare, and
his most recent novel, Cold Call.
Michael was born in Yorkshire, England and now lives in Cumbria. He is a consultant engineer.
Norm: Good day Michael and thanks for participating in our interview.
Could you tell us about people or books you have read that have inspired you to embark on your own career as an author?
Michael: I've always read pretty widely and I'd say it's the cumulative influence of a whole spectrum of fiction that fired me up to try my own hand at writing. I didn't start from any separate desire to “be a writer”. It was the inspiration drawn from what I read - literary and popular fiction - that got me wondering if I could deliver something back.
If I was looking for particular influences in what I've read I'd say there were two: one is the type of fiction in which pure storytelling is everything (writers like Irving, to give an idea), including the genre fiction where the entertainment angle of the storytelling is honed to an art form (King, Grisham and so on); a second influence has been the voice-driven writing of authors like Kerouac and Selby and Salinger, reflected in crime fiction by Hammett and Chandler and recently by writers like Crais.
So a great story with the added ingredient of voice is what I love to read and it's that kind of fiction that's guided the way I write. I don't claim anything special for my own work but at least those guidelines have kept me focused on what I'm trying to deliver.
Norm: Why did you choose writing crime novels?
Michael: I've simply read a lot of crime and mystery. I'd read all of the Sherlock Holmes and Father Brown stories by my mid-teens and in recent years, travelling as an engineering consultant, I've been in the habit of reading crime as my main entertainment to see me through a lot of evenings in hotels and apartments. Probably half of what I've read in the last decade has been crime and mystery so it was a natural choice to try that. What I found when I did try it was that the mysteries came relatively easily, leaving only the question of whether I could wrap entertaining stories around them.
Norm: What do you think most characterizes your writing?
Michael: I want my readers to be led through a fictional world by the narrative voice of a character they can warm to. If readers enjoy the voice and want to hear it out then I've succeeded. I'd say that narrative voice and light crime/mystery characterizes the three books I've written.
Norm: What did you find most useful in learning to write? What was least useful or most destructive?
Michael: The most useful learning tool has been reading. That's probably true for most authors: there are no better teachers than other writers. The least useful for me, in the sense of most likely to deter, has been... well, also reading, because when I read books that are on a level that seems unattainable it can be intimidating. The best writing can deter an aspiring writer.
So if you want to write crime, don't read Ellroy. If you want to write legal, don't read Grisham. If you want to tell yourself that commercial fiction is worthwhile keep clear of Greene and Golding and Steinbeck and Hemingway. Any of these writers can scare you away from ever trying your hand. On the other hand, if you haven't read all those writers you're probably not ready to write. So there's a contradiction: the writing that inspires can also deter.
Luckily there's a flip side: I've come out of a bookshop sometimes with something I'm raring to get my teeth into only to find that what I've bought is just an over-hyped howler - junk - and then I just know that I can do better. So the book goes into the bin and the word processor gets fired up and that's a kind of inspiration. But bottom line: I learned writing by reading.
Norm: What do you think over the years has driven you as a writer?
Michael: Definitely all that reading and the desire to give something back. What I write may not be Golding or Ellroy but once I've accepted that and realized that competent popular fiction has its place then I can see something that's worthwhile and achievable. So great reading has driven me and realistic goals have guided me.
Norm: You write with a very vivid and descriptive style. Do you use any particular techniques to help with your writing or to help flesh out descriptive imagery?
Michael: Perhaps my earlier comments give a hint. I've been a great believer in “voice” since I first read The Catcher in the Rye. I love novels where you're right there taking the flak with the main character, and I've adopted that as a key technique. What I add - not my invention, of course - is minimalism. It's interesting that you mention descriptive style in relation to my book, but actually my rule is to minimize description - of people and places. I aim to sketch things out and let the reader fill in the detail. Reading's all about imagination. I've always been wary of crime and mystery that's heavy on life's minutiae. I suspect that “detail” and “realism” are so often confused. And although detail clearly works for many readers it's not for me.
I may be wrong: there have been more than a few agents who've turned my writing down because it's not descriptive enough and because there's insufficient characterization, but I write what attracts me as a reader. So if I've a technique I'd say it's about leaving things out.
Norm: What motivated you to write Cold Call?
Michael: In the case of Cold Call the book is part of a series and came along because of the two preceding books. But the motivation for the first in the series was the desire to try my hand at what entertained me as a reader. When I did start writing I found that there was an enjoyment analogous to reading, and the thing became self-motivating. You write because you enjoy it, and you write more because readers tell you they've enjoyed what you write.
Norm: What would you say is the best reason to recommend someone to read the book?
Michael: If you're a light crime and mystery reader and enjoy the sense of being there on the ground, walking through the mystery alongside a likeable character, then you might appreciate the book. If you're a reader who loves to let your imagination loose to fill in the colours then you might like it. If you like books where the writing is kept out of the way of the reading you might like it.
Norm: How did you go about creating the character of Eddie Flynn?
Michael: I guess Flynn is an amalgam of all the fictional detective's I've read, from Brown and Marlowe to Bosch and Cole. I didn't set out to emulate any one of them but when I started to write my first book I could sense the influence of a number of fictional detectives coming out.
Flynn actually started out as a London police detective, with a darker character and a few bad lifestyle habits (he smoked, for example, something that would never occur to Flynn). But once I'd planned out a couple of stories featuring that detective I realized that I'd need to spend too much time researching the Metropolitan Police if I wanted to present a realistic police procedural. So I shifted my character into the private sector as a P.I.
That removed not only the shackles of portraying a real policeman but also gave my detective the freedom to take short cuts without the constraints of the police system. And once I started to write the first Flynn novel the original detective's voice changed, became much lighter and less reverent, and the character fleshed itself out from there.
Norm: Is there much of you in Eddie?
Michael: I don't think so. Flynn is the hero we'd all like to be but most of us aren't. If I've used any of my own character in Flynn it's in the negative: for instance, I'm a pretty impatient person, but one of the things about Flynn is his patience, his ability to take heat without rising to the bait, and that's a trait I think readers like: the guy who's tough enough to walk away and not be burdened by all the negatives that come his way. We like our fictional heroes to suffer a little but we like them even more if they aren't brought down by it.
Clearly, a fictional character with a strong sense of right and wrong and a sensitivity to others probably reflects a trait in the author, and probably in the readers too. If they don't share some of Flynn's values they're not likely to be reading him. But values aside both I and my readers are probably unlike Flynn. He's the guy we're not, and that's the point.
Norm: Did you know the end of your book at the beginning?
Michael: Absolutely. I'm an engineer. I always need to know where I'm going even if the end solution might involve a little tweaking. I couldn't start writing without knowing where a story is going and the routes by which it gets there. I leave the method of sculpting a story word-by-word from nothing to the geniuses like Dickens and King.
King says that plotting a novel is the sign of a bad writer. He's wrong (okay - wrong and rich) because plotting a story would be a weakness only for King. For writers of mysteries in particular, where there must be not only a puzzle with a credible denouement at the end of the tale, but also red herrings along the way to keep the reader wrong-footed, writing without a detailed plot seems unworkable.
Once I've got the plot laid out I can enjoy the writing, and if things take a different turn part way through that's fine - the ending can adjust if need be. Having no ending to aim for just wouldn't work for me.
Norm: Did you have a hard time fleshing out characters initially?
Michael: Probably less so than those writers who aim for a greater depth of character. I aim more for caricature. I'm a great Dickens fan so I'm all for caricature, for leaving the reader to flesh things out. And I found that my fairly vague sense of the characters in the Flynn books developed into the final thing pretty quickly as I wrote the first novel. And the limited character I put into Flynn himself is delivered through his words and actions and the words and reactions of people around him, never through description. It's part of that minimalism again.
Norm: Where can our readers find out more about you and your books?
Michael: My WEBSITE and I post the occasional news and blogs there. I also keep an email list of those interested in updates. Anyone who'd like to be kept informed can just message me along the lines of “include on mailing list” on the site form. They can also follow @DonovanCrime on TWITTER, and there's a Michael-Donovan-Crime Facebook page.
Norm: What is next for Michael Donovan?
Michael: That's a decision for January 2016. Probably it's a fourth Eddie Flynn book but I'm still looking for the right moment to take a break from the series and write something different.
I'd almost decided to do that in 2015 - blog readers will know that I'm keen to try some unrelated crime/thriller ideas, of which I've a few stacked up and ready to go. In the end I opted for Flynn #3, and since the series seems to be developing I might just stay with it for a while longer before taking that break.
Norm: As this interview comes to an end, what question do you wish that someone would ask about your book, but nobody has?
Michael: The most important one would be “Where should we mail the million-dollar cheque in support of the Eddie Flynn author development fund?” Failing that, an inquiry from a mainstream publisher along the lines of “Where should we mail the million-dollar advance in support of Eddie Flynn #4?” Either query would get a speedy response.
Norm: Thanks once again and good luck with all of your future endeavors.
Michael: Many thanks for talking to me, Norm. It's been my pleasure.