Paul Finch, author of fantastic horror, crime and historical novels in addition to numerous screen-writing credits joins us for the first of a five part chat about genre, influences and writing for the page and screen.
When were you inspired to become a writer and who (or what) inspired you to pick up a pen?
There is no question that my late father inspired me to be an author. Brian Finch was a successful television screenwriter for four decades. He covered the entire spectrum from soaps to crime drama, from period pieces to children’s television, from science fiction to comedy and romance. He was the ultimate professional. He could turn his hand to anything and with great aplomb. The high point of his career was probably Goodnight Mr. Tom in 1998 for which he won a BAFTA – that was an adaptation of Michelle Magorion’s famous novel.
Dad’s early life never prepared him for any of this. He grew up in Wigan, Lancashire, a coal-mining town, where the local people, though as good an example of humanity as you could find, had few highfalutin ambitions. Yet my dad had wanted to be a writer since his earliest days. That he achieved this so successfully, with minimal qualifications and no experience to call on – either his own or anyone else’s – is quite remarkable and really should be an inspiration to anybody. I’m sorry if that’s in some ways a boring answer. I have been inspired by other great writers – of course I have, but growing up with my dad and seeing at close hand how happy he was doing what he did, how much satisfaction he drew from his creativity, and to hear him talk so enthusiastically about his craft are 100% the reasons why I too became a writer.
For those interested, Brian Finch’s own contributions to the crime genre are mainly TV credits but they are plentiful. They include: Softly Softly, Chinese Puzzle, Hunter’s Walk, Public Eye, Shoestring, The Bill, and, on a lighter note, Heartbeat.
You used to be a police officer, was the step into crime writing an easy one or did you find it difficult to detach yourself from what you had learned on the job?
There’s no question that my police experience has helped me enormously in terms of my writing. I know my police procedural pretty well inside-out. It was that, I think, that first got me onto The Bill. I sent them a script on spec – not an episode of the series, but an original screenplay concerning a murder inside a police station. Nothing happened at first, but then, about six months later, I received a phone call from one of the script editors asking me if I’d like to go in and see them. I was very raw in writing terms then, but they were intrigued that I knew the police world and police life so well so when they offered me a shot at the show, I jumped at it. I should add that it was several years before I actually made it through the system onto the TV screen. I might have known my police stuff, but way back then I didn’t know much about writing and had to learn it the hard way.
However, my experience as a police officer gave me an excellent grounding in regard to modern law and order issues and I’ve been able to utilise it many times on the written page.
Does having ‘insider knowledge’ as it were make research for crime writing redundant or do you still have to put the hours in?
No, I still have to put the hours in. I finished in the police some time ago, and my knowledge could easily become outdated if I didn’t keep on refreshing it. Police protocols and procedures change all the time. The law itself changes. When I started as a copper the Police and Criminal Evidence Act hadn’t even been introduced and that made phenomenal changes across the board in terms of methods and processes. So I have to try and stay on the ball. In addition, there was never a time when I knew everything anyway. Law enforcement is a vast arena in which to be employed – there are so many different aspects to it and it’s rare that you can experience and become familiar with all of them.
I have to do my research like everyone else. Though I still have lots of friends and contacts in the police, so I suppose that helps.
Which crime writers do you currently admire in the genre?
There are quite a few. From the States, James Ellroy, James Lee Burke, Michael Connelly and Elmore Leonard. From the UK, Stuart MacBride, Ian Rankin, Peter Robinson, Mark Billingham. I also love Mo Hayder’s amazing blend of crime and horror.
You’ve written crime for both the screen and the page, which do you prefer?
For me they’re both pretty satisfying but unless you’re writing a screenplay for a major Hollywood studio, you can let rip a lot more in prose than you can in a script.
I don’t mean to say that bigger is always better. Far from it. But when I’m writing a novel, I get a great deal of pleasure from pushing the envelope in a way that I wouldn’t be able to on television. I’m partly talking about sex, violence and profanity here, which inevitably come into it if you’re dealing with gritty crime scenarios. For example, when I was writing for The Bill, it was a pre-watershed TV show, so you had to create material that dealt with modern policing issues but was also family friendly. But in addition to all that, and this would apply whether The Bill was on TV before nine o’clock or after it, there was no point developing anything that would be too complex or expensive to produce. Budgetary constraints didn’t just disappear because you had a great idea. For instance, if your plot required an action sequence, you first had to ponder how expensive it would be to show cars chasing and crashing, how many stunt doubles you would need, how expensive the FX if you were to ask for gunfire, explosions and so forth. You don’t have any of that when you’re writing a novel, which is really very liberating.
At the risk of having given you a rather shallow response, that’s about it really. Otherwise, I get the same kick from writing both forms. If you’ve told a rattling good story, and people are talking about it afterwards and are basically energised and enthused by it, then you’ve done your job as an author, whether they saw it on the screen or read it on the page. Either way, it’s very satisfying.
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