Interview: Paul Finch on genre writing, Part III

Terror tales of the cotswoldsYour work has spanned the horror, crime and historical fiction genres. Which is your favourite and do you have a different approach for each genre?

I don’t have a real favourite. All three of these genres score equally for me, but purely from a personal perspective each one presents its own unique challenge.

Historical fiction, for example, demands that you be adept at world-building. You can’t assume that every reader will be fully au fait with the time-period you’re writing about, so you need to create a concise picture of the historical era your characters inhabit, especially if it’s something they don’t see very often in the movies. But even if it’s something they do, you want it make it as real for them as possible. Most readers will think they know what the Romans looked like, and will be aware that medieval knights lived in castles. But perhaps they won’t know a lot more than that, and this won’t necessarily serve your purpose. In fact, it may be vital to your narrative that your audience has, or quickly attains, a workable understanding of the period. But by the same token you’ve got to impart this to them in a way that isn’t just info dump; as I say, you’ve got to be concise – you’ve got to weave in into the action so the pace never flags.

With horror it’s different again. The biggest challenge there is creating a sense of fear. Many years ago, I was interviewed on BBC Radio Manchester when a bunch of my stories were given an audio release by K-Tel with a few eminent actors reading. I came out with one quote which I was rather proud of at the time, describing horror as comedy’s “dark twin” – in that it attempts to provoke an emotional response which for much of the average day is quite elusive. In comedy it’s mirth, in horror it’s fear. I’ve never been a big fan of gore for its own sake. To me, for horror to really work it has to be scary, not revolting. And the only way you can achieve that as an author is to sit down and imagine scenarios that you personally find frightening or disturbing, which isn’t always easy in the humdrum lives we tend to lead these days, and then recreate it on the page but at the same time work it into something seamless. Again, and with horror especially, if something is obviously contrived, it just won’t work.

The crime and thriller medium is probably the most grown-up of the three, in that you’re writing in the real world and the here and now, touching on themes that your audience will already be familiar with and, in some cases, may have been affected by. For which reason, you need to handle the material very differently. Okay, it’s only fiction, but it’s possible to cross the line. The way you get around that, at least in my experience, is by telling a compelling story with suspense and mystery at its heart, and utilising strong, believable and sympathetic characters, and with a pacy narrative that just keeps pulling the readers along – in effect creating a fantasy adventure in the midst of gritty urban realism. David Fincher’s movie Se7en, scripted by Andrew Kevin Walker, would be a good example of this; a story of unrelieved pain and suffering in the heart of drug-addiction, prostitution and poverty, yet it’s a ripping tale filled with intrigue and excitement. Even though it ends on a truly dismal note, you know you’ve watched an exhilarating thriller.

It’s always difficult of course, using violence and torment as a means to entertain, but this isn’t something we need ashamed of. Human society has done this ever since the days of the campfire story. But if it is cast in an acceptable – maybe even an instructive – context, then you could be onto a real winner. How, for example, do you tell the story of a police investigation into the rape of a little girl without it seeming exploitative and voyeuristic?  John Hopkins had the answer with his 1968 stage-play, This Story Of Yours (which in 1972 was made into an astonishing movie, The Offence, with Sean Connery and Trevor Howard). It’s master-class writing, dealing with a shocking crime and all its appalling consequences in a most grown-up and yet dramatic fashion.

After all that, I’m not sure if I’ve really answered the question here. To summarise, you asked me how I approach these different genres. I suppose it’s mainly the case that I bear all these different modes and motivations in mind when writing in them. I suppose, at the end of the day, certain things will always be the same. Most stories, whatever genre they’re in, are about human beings, the jeopardy they face and their struggles to overcome. They are about people and their relationships. Without any of that, as you know, it simply doesn’t work – no matter what the background happens to be.

Your upcoming novel Stalkers features a character called Mark Heckenburg. Can you talk us through his creation?

Like all heroes, Detective Sergeant Mark ‘Heck’ Heckenburg has more good points than bad ones, but I thought it important from the beginning that he wasn’t a white knight. I don’t mean by that that he’s of ambiguous morality. I love tough police characters like Popeye Doyle or Dirty Harry, who exist in such a state of war with the underworld that they often let their guns do the talking, but that’s really a different era from this one. Heck can mix it if he needs to, of course he can – that’s a prerequisite of urban policing (despite the way the job has tried to reinvent itself in the age of political correctness, it often boils down to a simple question – do you want to be able to protect the victims from the victimisers, or don’t you?) – but that isn’t the whole story with Heck. In actual fact he’s an affable guy, who has sympathy and understanding for those creatures inhabiting the fringes of society, and who believes that a discreet, diplomatic approach can pay off where violence and intimidation won’t, but who at the same time despises the really big fish in the criminal pond and will stop at nothing to defeat them, even if that involves bending the rules to breaking point.

This is where Heck’s flaws start to show, because he’s more obsessive than is good for him. His boss and ex-girlfriend, Detective Superintendent Gemma Piper, has a real problem with this aspect of his character. He imposes long hours on himself, working doggedly, often alone, to get results – and this is hugely detrimental to his social life, not to mention his love life.  He is not married – (mainly because he is still in constant proximity to Gemma) – so he has nothing really to go home to, which situation is likely to remain as long as he buries himself in work.

All of this really stems from my observations of detectives in real life. The best one I ever knew, and who I worked with regularly (though I won’t mention his name) always went an extra ten miles to get the job done. He had been totally sucked into the police world at the expense of everything else, and would think nothing of working back-to-back shifts to close cases. He actually was married, but having seen the way he and his wife interacted, I’m not sure that state of affairs would last much longer. She basically never saw him.

This kind of fixation can have other unsavoury side-effect. It creates a ‘grump’ in the cop personality, because though these guys won’t admit it, they are always tired, always on the edge – and as they have no time for anything but work, there is very little in their world for them to look forward to. They also have a firm conviction – or is this an excuse they make to themselves? – that without them, the job will fall apart. There is much of this in Heck too.

But as I say, he is the hero of these stories, so while much of his personality it based on real hard-working detectives I was personally acquainted with, other parts of his character are borrowed freely from hardboiled American crime fiction: he is sharp, witty (verging on a Chandler-esque smartarse) and, if you can get through the rumpled exterior, has a rugged, easy charm that the average person on the street would find attractive.

Another aspect of Heck’s character is his relationship with Gemma Piper, his former lover and full-time boss. These two really are fire and water but deep down there is a very strong bond between them which will nearly always provide the emotional core of the story. I won’t go into too much detail over this as it’s something I want to develop through the books.

DAN HOWARTH

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Paul Finch fiction (UK)
Paul Finch fiction (US)

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