A chat with author Will Carver

On May 29, 2011, in Author, Books, Interview, by Milo

Joining me today for a chat is Will Carver, author of Girl 4 – his debut crime thriller:

Will Carver

Will Carver

Will, when did you first realize you wanted to be a writer? Did you get one of those pivotal moments in school or did it come later?

I wanted to be a painter until I was about fourteen. There were two pivotal moments I can pinpoint which changed all of this for me. The first was a great English teacher who felt I had a certain aptitude for poetry at the time. She was more than a teacher of the curriculum, she would suggest books that I could read at home or poets I may be interested in – she told me I might enjoy Edgar Allan Poe and she was absolutely right. I suppose it was her confidence in me that made me want to write poetry every day and I found I could express myself more clearly with words than I ever could with paint.

The second moment came after reading Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk. It blew me away. I loved it but, more importantly, I was completely gutted that I hadn’t written it. I’d never felt that way about a book before. From that instant, my love affair with the novel form was born and poetry joined painting as a hobby I enjoy when I’m not writing a book.

What’s the worst job you’ve ever had while waiting for that breakthrough moment?

I had quite a few jobs while trying to kick down the door of the publishing world. I worked at a Starbucks for a while and a Blockbuster Video – both of which I quite enjoyed. I had some long shifts in a pub, which was really hard work. Then I suddenly found myself on the bottom rung of the IT world – not what I was expecting to be doing with my first-class degree in Theatre and Television. This lasted for years. I actually found myself moving up, getting promoted, earning good money, all  of which meant nothing to me. I just wanted to be a writer.

There were some jobs that I hated more than others; the ones which would leave me so drained at the end of the day that I was too tired to write. I had horrible bosses and I had great bosses. I think all jobs are the worst when there is something else you really want to do.

How much of a struggle did you initially face to bring January David to the masses? I remember talking to bestselling author Steve Berry a few weeks ago and he had 85 rejections over 12 years – I take it yours was a little smoother?!

In comparison, it was a little smoother. I probably had a handful of editors who loved but didn’t quite take that final leap with GIRL 4. Once it got into the hands of my, now, editor at Random House it was relatively swift. He came back with a pre-emptive offer, there was a short period of negotiation, and a three-book deal was agreed. From the initial idea to writing the book and signing a contract, it was about ten months in total.

I’ve probably made that sound easier than it was, and it certainly wasn’t without its sense of crippling rejection at times. But I should add that, for four or five years before GIRL 4, I was trying to get another book published which wasn’t in the crime-fiction genre. That was another pocketful of dismissal but it’s all part of the process. You develop a thicker skin from being turned down but it still feels like a punch in the stomach every time.

What drew you to the Crime Genre? Have you always been a fan?

I haven’t read that many crime novels, to be honest, and I think that is the reason GIRL 4 turned out the way it has; I did not enter into writing this book with any preconceptions of the genre. I wanted to tell the story my way.

I had written another book before this which was seen by some publishers. One of them suggested that my style may suit a thriller. After a month of deliberation, I decided to give it a go, drawing on my knowledge of the genre gleaned from film, television and the research I had done into the subject.

I had never considered writing something in the crime genre but it is such a great arena to explore the things I want to write about. Love, loss, family, desperation, death. Looking back at the first book I wrote, it actually centred around a crime committed on the very first page. I’ve never really thought about that before. I suppose I think about the story I want to write and the setting comes after. The January David story tessellates with the crime genre but future ideas may fit into another category.

I’ve never come across a character/person with January as a Christian name – in fact the closest I’ve seen is a South African rugby player called Ricky Januarie – how on earth did you come up with the name as your leading character? I’m always fascinated how authors seem to somehow pull a name out of thin air!

I spend a lot of time naming all of the characters in my books; it is so important to get this right, I think. With January David I wanted something memorable that would stay with a reader. I always get asked this question so it clearly does. My light bulb moment, when I decided on January, will remain only with me, I’m afraid. Perhaps until a few books down the line. I don’t want to ruin anything for readers.

Girl 4 by Will Carver

Girl 4 by Will Carver

Can you tell the readers a little about Girl 4 and the main character?

GIRL 4 is the first in a series featuring Detective Inspector January David, a London detective who has has made a name for himself solving violent crimes.  In this, the first book, he is investigating an elusive serial killer who has already taken the lives of three women.  The fourth victim, Girl 4, changes everything for January – because he knows her, and this makes the case personal for him.  Being a detective is, in any case, a fiercely personal mission for January because of a tragedy in his own past.  He’s a man tormented by his own demons, and the January David series explores his own story alongside those of the victims.

I didn’t set out to write about a hero cop; DI David is more than usually flawed – but, hopefully, that makes him intriguing for readers.  He doesn’t always get things right, and his quest to catch the killer takes him to dark places.  It’s the psychology, more than police procedure, that fascinates me.  In particular, January David is torn between whether detective work should be based solely on solid, conventional police work – or gut feelings.  Throughout GIRL 4, and indeed the entire series, January battles to trust his own intuition.  Not everything is always as it seems in GIRL 4. What you see is not always what is real.  January David is thrown into this grey area between reality and dream, facts and hunches.  He not only has to discover the truth, he has to define it.

Is there a follow up to Girl 4?

There certainly is. The second book is called THE TWO and continues the January David series. He enters into another high-profile case searching for a killer seemingly using Pagan ceremony while taking their victims. The problem our detective faces is that the killer he seeks has already been captured by a vigilante who goes by the name V.

THE TWO will be published on 10th November (It is already available for pre-order on Amazon.).

I have just about finished the third book which will be published in 2012. As it is incomplete, I cannot reveal anything at this stage, but it is also part of the January David series. I have recently started research for the fourth.

What books/authors have most influenced you most and why?

Chuck Palahniuk, as I said earlier, is a massive influence on me. Fight Club certainly changed the way I think about writing. I always have a copy on my desk when I am hammering away at the keyboard. Sometimes I stop, flick to a page and start reading. I tell myself, ‘This is how good it can be. This is what you can do with words.’

I don’t really like to get swept up in a book and forget where I am; I don’t want to completely lose myself in that world – I think this comes from my love of Brecht. I want a book to jolt me and make me think. I want to feel uncomfortable with some of the phrases or I want to laugh out loud. I want to work at it, not be absorbed by it.

I think I always read as a writer, so I am looking to get to the end of a book and feel awful. When I read The Great Gatsby I just have to wonder how anyone could write a book so perfect. The language is ferocious. I turn that last page and I am in awe.

I read anything by Hemingway and I speak out loud. ‘What’s the point? Why does anybody else even bother writing?’ He is so sparse with his prose yet fits so much in there somehow. I’d never read any of his stuff before I started writing. My agent and editor both commented on how laconic my own style is so I thought I’d check out the master. Now, every time I write a concise chapter, I think of Hemingway. He wasn’t an influence before but he certainly is now. I could talk about my admiration for his writing all day.

When it comes to dialogue, you can’t beat David Mamet. So natural. So real. His book, On Directing, was a huge influence on me. He really grills some students in there about certain scenes they have written that don’t actually further the story in any way. I think this had a great effect on how I work. I’m really not that precious about the things that I write. If I read back on a chapter I have written and I don’t think it adds to the story and advances it in any way, then I will delete it from existence. Forever.

I’ve always liked Nick Hornby because reading his books feels as though he is simply talking to me. He certainly had an influence on the length of my chapters. I’ll never forget the first time I read Julian Barnes’ Talking It Over or Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr Ripley, but Palahniuk is my biggest influence. His voice is so original and captivating, but the best thing he does, for me, is write unlikeable characters. They are so much more fun. He is not afraid to tell his readers just how messed up the world is and the people in it. These characters are the most interesting to me. That is why I enjoyed writing the Eames character in GIRL 4. He is the villain, the killer but somehow, his reasons for doing the horrendous things that he does do not necessarily come from such a horrible place. You are scared by him but also understand part of where he is coming from. Hopefully it makes his chapters a little less comfortable.

This isn’t to say that I don’t read chick-lit or historical novels or non-fiction because I will try anything. But I always comes back to Palahniuk, Hemingway, Mamet, Fitzgerald, if I want to get rocked.

Do you relish the writing procedure or are you prone to distractions?

I love it. I can lock myself away for hours. I like to write most days but that can be difficult as I have a seventeen-month-old daughter who requires a lot of my time and energy. The beauty of writing for a living is that I can go to work anywhere at any time.

I find that I get the most work done either early in the morning or very late at night. My afternoon writing is often interspersed with playing the guitar or chatting on Twitter/Email/Messenger. That is my most distracted period of the day.

At the start of a book I tend to take things very easy and can have all my work for the day done by lunch. By the time I hit the final third of a novel I tend to work non-stop and cut myself off from the world completely. No texts or mail or talking. I can sit in my office, shut off from the world for the entire day without seeing any daylight.

I am very disciplined when I know I have to get the work done or I find myself in a prolific period, so I allow myself the odd distraction when they present themselves to me.

What was the hardest part about writing Girl 4?

The research is always time-consuming. I like to experience everything that my characters do, which means walking the routes they walk around London, visiting the locations and living the moment I am going to write about. I do enjoy this but it takes time.

Once I had the end written and all the characters developed, GIRL 4 really wrote itself. I got the words down onto the page fairly quickly.

The hardest part was creating the different voices for each character. Because I have written this book in a way where each character speaks in the first person, from their point of view, telling their side of the story, I had to ensure that they were distinct enough that you could tell them apart. Their individual chapters are headed with their names but a reader should be able to identify them without this too. This was the most difficult part but actually it still felt like the natural way to tell this particular story.

What book are you reading now?

A Farewell to Arms

A Farewell to Arms

I’m currently immersed in the final stages of writing the third January David novel so my reading has slowed. I just finished The Finkler Question, which was great. I have a copy of A Farewell To Arms waiting for me as a reward when I finish. (I’m working my way through everything Hemingway ever wrote.) I read a lot of books – fiction and non-fiction – as part of my research, some of which I would only recommend as an aid to insomnia but are necessary.

I remember talking to a couple of authors earlier in the year about the planning and creative side of writing. Some writers like to “wing it” and see what develops and some meticulously plan every stage of the book with little deviation once the outline has been finalised. How did you attack Girl 4 and will it be different for the next novel?

I certainly don’t plan every chapter. GIRL 4 is about 360 pages and the style in which I have written it means that the chapters are often quite short – there are probably over eighty chapters. I’d be wasting time if I sat and plotted each one. They are short enough that I can easily delete or rewrite, sometimes even reposition.

I started with a subject I wanted to write about and research. I can’t really say what this is without giving any major plot points away but this is what gave me the ending to the book. It was the first part I came up with. It’s so important. You don’t want to read 300 pages and then be let down by the final twist or revelation. So this is where I started.

The next part I came up with was the beginning. And, of course, I decided to start in the middle. I had such a strong picture of the character Girl 4, and the image of her that can be seen on the front cover, that I knew I wanted to open with her predicament.

That was it.

Of course, I had planned how each of the victims would meet their demise, but the rest of the book was a journey that I took with the characters. I knew the story I wanted to tell, and I just wrote. Sometimes I would be surprised at an angle that presented itself to me, but on the whole I kept a clear idea of what would happen in my head or on the map of London I have pinned behind my desk. I never wrote a detailed outline on paper.

To be honest, this technique was thrust on me by circumstance. I had to get this book written quickly. I had been made redundant from a job and decided to take a risk and get GIRL 4 written, polished and submitted.

However, I found it worked for me and I have employed the same technique for my second book, THE TWO, and also the third book, which I am close to completing. It works for me on this series, but I may alter this approach if I write something different.

Hindsight is a wonderful thing but given the opportunity to have discovered a word in the dictionary what would it be?

The dictionary is one of my favourite books. I’m not joking. I even have a favourite letter. P. Put it the start of a word and it can sound like a P – Palindrome – or an F – Photograph – or you silence it and get S – Psychopath. Some of my favourite words are in the P chapter. Palindrome, pseudo, poppycock. It’s difficult to pick a favourite or one I wish I had come up with.

I like the words exsanguinate and solipsistic and supercilious. Words that you never use but sound so great that you would love an opportunity to say them once in conversation. That said, I guess loquacious is such a wonderful word for what it means. It would have been nice to have come up with that one.

I tend to make up a few words with each book, though; it’s great fun. As long as there is a context, a reader will generally understand what it could mean. (Neologism is also a favourite of mine.)

What’s the one question you wish you were never asked?!

Before I was published, I would write and let others read my work. I was always asked, ‘So, which character is you, then?’ Er, none of them. It’s fiction. It was always the very first thing somebody would ask and I wish there was a law that prohibited this. Obviously, parts of you will leak onto the page, but never an entire character. I thought that, if I wrote a book about someone who trawls the capital killing people, I wouldn’t get asked this question, but everyone still asks whether I am January David.

So, the question is ‘Which character in your book is based on you?’

None of them. I created them all. They are all me.

Social Media – Yes or No?

Yes. Of course. You have to keep up with these things otherwise you’ll fall behind and never catch up. YouTube is great for trailers or author interviews or surfing dogs or covers of songs by people locking themselves in a cupboard under the stairs with a web-cam and tambourine.

I love Twitter because it’s a great place to meet other writers who are going or have gone through the same kinds of experiences. I tend not to follow too many ‘celebs’, mainly other writers, bloggers, reviewers, readers. And I think everybody is on Facebook, right?

I am a real gadget fan so I like to keep up with the latest technologies, and this involves being part of the social media revolution. It’s cool, it’s exciting and possibilities are mind-boggling.

At the same time, I’d probably write a lot more if I wasn’t on these websites all the time but, as a writer, I can connect with the people who read my books and they can do the same with me. Writers, singers, painters, business people, couldn’t do that five or ten years ago. I can understand why people may not like this but I personally think it is something worth exploring.

And finally…If you could invite three people/characters from the past to a dinner party who would you invite and why?

Only three? This is difficult because there are are staple answers to this question. I was also tempted to just invite my heroes, Chuck Palahniuk, Woody Allen, David Attenborough, but then you have to think about the dynamic and what you want to get out of the evening. Is Fox Mulder going to be able to talk to me about crop-circles then turn around and speak with an Australian rugby legend like David Campese while I drop some harmonies with Billie Holiday? [love the Billie Holiday angle although I’d probably prefer Ella!]

I deliberated and came up with this:

Ernest Hemingway, 1969 Joni Mitchell and Jack Donaghy – Alec Baldwin’s Character in 30 Rock.

I’m going through an almost obsessive Hemingway period right now. Of course his writing just blows me away but his life was just as interesting. A Moveable Feast, the memoir of his time in Paris, is one of my favourite books. He rubbed shoulders with other great writers at that time – I’m thinking of F. Scott Fitzgerald here – and whether all the stories are true or not, it would make for fascinating conversation. This isn’t even mentioning his time at war or his life in Cuba. You know there would not be an awkward moment of silence with Hemingway at the dinner table.

I am a massive fan of the films and music that came out of New York, but LA, particularly in the Canyon area between ’67-’76, was alive with all the music that I like to listen to – Neil Young, Crosby, Stills and Nash, James Taylor – and you don’t get much better than Joni Mitchell.

Her music has been a large part of my listening life and there is no doubt she would be interesting to talk to now but I think it would be more intriguing to speak with her just as she is about to release Ladies of the Canyon, before she has even written The Hissing of Summer Lawns, possibly my favourite album ever.

The main reason for inviting her to my imaginary dinner would be to hear her play and sing at the end of the meal. I have a list of artists I want to see before I, or they, die. I have managed to cross them all off with the exception of Joni Mitchell. She doesn’t really tour any more so my hypothetical meal may be the only chance to see her live.

Jack Donaghy would be my light relief. I realise I am stretching the confines of the question here but I am counting him as a character from the past because I haven’t seen the current season of 30 Rock yet.

I think conversation might err on the side of serious with Joni Mitchell and Hemingway. I don’t like to take things that seriously all of the time and I think that Jack would help to lighten the mood. Of course he has had an interesting and successful life too but I’d like him there for the laughter. I’d also expect him to bring a nice bottle of whisky as a gift to the host.

Will, thanks for joining me today. To learn more about Will and his projects please take time out to visit his website.

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