So, Old Gold came out yesterday. And you have your copy, yes? I don’t – I got an email from Amazon this morning kindly informing me that the order I placed in February has just despatched. Useful, guys. It’s not like I didn’t give you any notice.
Anyway, if you need any more convincing there are some pretty decent reviews coming in already. And I somehow managed to track down the elusive author for an exclusive interview. His cats, at least, are pretty excited about it. If by “excited”, I mean “refusing to step off of the backspace key”.
When you were little, what did you want to be when you grew up? And when did you realise that you wanted to be a writer?
I wanted to be Indiana Jones. Still do. I’m calling that one a work in progress because a man has to have a dream. It’s easier to see looking back that I always wanted to be a writer. I couldn’t put it in the right terms when I was young, not least because reading and writing itself was a bit of a challenge at times. I told my teacher at junior school that I wanted to be “a bookmaker” and I would draw little stories, make them into comics and books with cello-tape. I tried other things when I was older, trying to copy other heroes of mine by being in bands or trying to be a comedian or filmmaker, but eventually I came back to what I should have been doing all along.
What influences you?
Real life, news stories, real people. I think I’m a frustrated journalist, but journalism seems to be turning more into fiction these days anyway. I like music that is about real places and real problems, and I’m always very excited by films that are set in the real location and have actual human beings on screen, not just actors playing them. I love Italian neorealism, for instance, like The Bicycle Thieves and Umberto D, and early Ken Loach. A large chunk of the second Miller book came from anger at things I was reading over the treatment of the Kurds, but I buried it away in a crime story set in the West Midlands. There are things like that buried away in Old Gold, too, but if i’ve done my job they’re not noticeable on the surface. I’m currently watching season 2 of Justified, and I love the fact that they’re building a story arc out of the controversies of surface mining.
You describe your work as “social fiction”, although your publishers would probably be happier labelling it “crime” or “mystery” so it sits easier on the shelf. What does your self-created label mean to you?
There’s often a tendency both from publishers and booksellers to use “crime” and “mystery” interchangeably, when “mystery” is really a subset of “crime.” I think it can be misleading to make the presence of a mystery the books main selling point, although it does allow me to slip a few things in under the radar. The labels often seem a bit arbitrary to me, yet they can completely change the way a book is reviewed or analysed. If we take three books, Intruder In The Dust by Faulkner, Hard Revolution by Pelecanos and The Bonfire Of The Vanities by Wolfe, they could all belong on the same shelf, but will be put in different sections in a bookstore. Each explores race relations in 20th century America, each involves misunderstandings and death, each has something to say as social fiction, but one of them is a ‘crime’ novel, and by someone considered a ‘mystery’ writer. I can think of few writers who’ve had as much to say on New York as Lawrence Block and Reed Farrel Coleman, and there aren’t many writers who are making the exciting stylistic choices of Ken Bruen or Don Winslow, but they’re all “mystery” writers. I think all of these distinctions are for two reasons; they make it easier to market the books, but they also give us all something to argue about. I like the term ‘social pulp,’ because it steps outside of the whole thing, and plays to the two different voices in my writing. I’m very comfortable with the pulpier aspects- of having to excite and entertain and to have cliff-hangers and hooks- but I come to writing to explore social issues, so I put the two of them together.
The book is set fairly firmly in the region where you grew up. Did you always intend for that to be the case when you first started writing the book? Has it proved easy for you to “write what you know”, or does your familiarity with the place pose its own challenges?
When I started writing there was never any doubt that I would write about the Midlands. It was just natural for me, and the perfect setting for an English crime novel. As I got deeper into it, and started to experience the barriers that seemed to be in place for a novel set in such an unfashionable region, it then become a more conscious thing. I then had to set it there and was not willing to write about anywhere else. I’ll branch out eventually, but right now it feels like what I need to be doing. “Writing what you know,” is vital for a writer, because it’s how you give things that validity and feeling of realism that will elevate your work. The small details, like the way people talk, or the opinions they have, these are all important and hard to fake. It can be a trap though, and I’ve seen a lot of writers wield the phrase “write what you know,” as an excuse to never step outside of themselves, to never expand to include other sexes or ethnic voices. An important thing for writers to learn (in my opinion, anyway) is that they can change what they know at any point just by doing the research.
A related question: it’s now been six years since you lived in the Midlands. Do you find that your new Glasgow base has had any impact on your work?
I think I got better at writing about the Midlands once I left. Taking a step back can help, not least because I moved to a city where people were pre-programmed to hold certain things against me because of my accent and they were not afraid to tell me. It forced me to change the way I think, and to get better at seeing both sides of an argument. I think it’s just an important part of growing up, too, to move away and see different things, it does change you. I don’t think there’s any specific flavours of life in Glasgow that have seeped through into my stories about the Midlands, but I’m sure I’ll have some Glasgow stories to tell at some point.
There are some who might argue that the lone wolf private investigator character, in many cases an ex-cop with a decent record collection, has been done to death. What sets Eoin Miller apart, do you think?
Those people would be right. There are a few aspects of the book that start out that way, but hopefully readers won’t find that they end that way. I like to set myself certain challenges. It doesn’t feel like an interesting project to me unless there’s a chance of failing, kind of a high-wire thing. I wanted to play with certain expectations of a hardboiled story, and with the gender politics and the fact that the protagonist often seems to be stuck in a certain point in history, even when the books are set in the present. One of the challenges for Old Gold was to start out with these things and see if I could earn them, and see if I could pull the book into the present. For Miller himself though, I think those elements are quickly stripped away as superficial aspects. He’s possibly the most mixed-up character I could have written, he’s an ethnic minority who acted out against his family by becoming a cop, but then realised that was a mistake, and those contradictions follow through into every decision he makes. He does identify strongly with music, but it’s not just to show off a fun record collection, it’s because of the state of mind he is in at the start of the book, and the small things he’ll cling to in order to avoid larger issues.
You’re currently working on your third novel in between holding down a full-time job, a heartbreaking relationship with an English football team and an extremely demanding family (miaow!). Do you have any tips for other creative types determined to “have it all”?
To stick to my career path of stealing from Franz Nicolay – you just have to “do the struggle”. At some point I hope I can get enough of a following to allow me to adjust my working hours, to spend more time on my writing and then also have more time for everything else, but there’s only one way to get there. One thing all published writers will be able to talk about is the amount of people at workplaces, parties or pubs who want to tell us how they would write “if they had the time”, or about the book they will write “some day”. The harsh truth is, you just do it. If someone really wants to read, they’ll make time to read and if someone really wants to write, they’ll make time to write. If someone else has to be telling you to do it, then maybe it’s not for you. One of my stable-mates at Team Decker, Matt McBride, wrote his novel in 20-30 second intervals while working on a production line, while my friend Steve Weddle has many more commitments than me but is the hardest working writer I know. It’s just down to how badly you want to do it. The only real leg up you can get is to surround yourself with people who will support what you do; find a partner who’ll give you a nudge to keep going when you’re feeling burned out, find an agent and editor whose voice you trust, and get to know some people who aren’t afraid to tell you when you’re full of shit.
I’m now going to patronise the shit out of you: you’re dyslexic, and have been quoted as describing written English as being “like a second language”. What impact, if any, has this had on your writing – did it make you more determined to finish the book, for example?
There might be a bit of me that felt like I had a point to prove once I committed to writing a novel. I’m just wired to think differently. When I was being tested I was shown a picture of a treehouse. After a few seconds my short-term memory wouldn’t allow me to remember details like colours or text, but I could say that there was somebody inside the treehouse, because there was a light in the window but no rope ladder, so someone must have climbed up and pulled it up after them. I take a lot of pride in writing, because so much of it is based around things that don’t come naturally to me, and that has to have an effect on how I write. I learned story before I learned spelling and grammar -though anyone who knows me will probably laugh at the suggestion that I ever have learned spelling and grammar – and I think it gives me a different set of priorities when I write.
Do you have anything else coming up that you’d like to tell us about?
Just my ebook prequel, Faithless Street, that you’ve already featured a snippet of. There’s no attempt to cash in or make a quick buck there, it’s just an attempt to give people a chance to sample my work in four short stories for less than a pound before I ask them to pay for a full novel and put time aside to read it. That’s an investment from a reader, and I wanted to give them something to help make an informed decision. Other than that, I’ve just handed the second book over to the publisher, and that’s due to be released sometime in the winter, and it has me setting the high-wire up even higher for both me and Miller.
I normally conclude by asking interviewees what they are listening to at the moment, but perhaps you’d like to tell us what you’re reading as well?
I’ve been on a big non fiction kick at the moment, I think a lot of that is because I have new tinted glasses that help me to read, and I can take in facts much easier. I’ve been revisiting George Orwell; my English teacher loaned me 1984 when I was 13, and when I told my father he also made me read The Road To Wigan Pier. Going back to the work now with adult eyes is very interesting, I’ve re-read a lot of his essays and I’m reading Homage To Catalonia for the first time. I’m about ready to slip back into ficiton again, so I’m about to start Blackbirds by Chuck Wendig. If his writing is not in your life, then I feel for your life.