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Stephen Booth Interview

Posted by Michelle on February 14, 2008

Stephen Booth is one of those rare people who, when you find out a little about them, are just so interesting that you want to know more, and this is reflected in his writing. His novels are at the forefront of the British crime genre and his intense style grips the reader from start to finish.

Q. You used to be a journalist – Did this help you as you became a novelist, or was the transition more difficult?

A. I think I was always a novelist first, and a journalist second. I wrote my first novel when I was 12 years old, and from that moment I knew what I wanted to do when I grew up. But I also knew you can’t just leave school and become a novelist overnight (you’d starve very quickly!). So that’s why I went into newspapers – it was a way of earning a living by writing. Being a journalist was very useful experience. It taught me a lot about the importance of keeping the reader in mind, about deadlines, and how to work with an editor. It also provided me with a vast source of ideas, characters, and incidents. My newspaper career is also the reason I came to know so many police officers.

On the downside, I found it a very difficult transition when I went from working in a busy newspaper office, surrounded by people, to slogging away at home on my own, day after day. I don’t miss the job so much, but I do miss the people I worked with. Writing can be very isolating.

Q. Where do you get your ideas from? Are they sparked by real life events, or do they come purely from your imagination?

A. For me, ideas are all around me, all the time. I can hardly pick up a newspaper in the morning without seeing possibilities for two or three crime novels. Sometimes, there are too many ideas, and then it becomes a question of focus. I don’t think anything can come ‘purely’ from the imagination. Although the imagination is a very powerful tool, there must be some detail from real life which sparks the creative process, however small and insignificant it might seem in itself.

Q. How about your characters, are they modeled on people that you know?

A. I’ve never based a character on a single individual, but what normally happens is that I take part of one person, a bit of someone else, and a characteristic of a third, then I put them together to create someone new. As a result, no one ever recognises themselves in my books – though police officers do sometimes claim to recognise their colleagues!

Q. What inspired you to start crime fiction? And why do you think this genre appeals to so many readers? Are there any other genres you plan on trying?

A. I’d read and enjoyed crime fiction myself for many years. I came into the genre through some of the ‘Golden Age’ writers – Christie, Sayers, etc. I moved on through P.D. James and Ruth Rendell to my more recent favourites, such as Minette Walters, Reginald Hill, Peter Robinson, and many more. When I set out to write my first published novel, BLACK DOG, it seemed to make sense to write the sort of book that I would enjoy reading myself.

This genre does everything I want as a writer. You can write about character, location, contemporary social issues, whatever you like – and yet have a great story at the same time. Some readers enjoy ‘whodunits’ for the puzzle element, others love to get involved in the lives of the characters over a continuing series. And I think there’s also a great appeal in exploring dark and dangerous subjects, but in a safe way.

Q. How would you pitch your books to someone who hasn’t yet read them?

A. I write about two young Derbyshire police detectives, DC Ben Cooper and DS Diane Fry, who operate in the wonderfully atmospheric Peak District. I suppose I set out to subvert the expectations of the genre a bit, because although I use a rural, small town setting, the mood of the books is much darker than the location might suggest. My aim is to show what lurks beneath the surface, to uncover the secrets behind those picturesque exteriors. Think ‘rural noir’!

Although they can be read as whodunits, I don’t really mind if a reader guesses ‘who did it’ before the end of the book, because there are always issues in the lives of the characters to be resolved. The mood of the stories can be quite dark, but I avoid graphic violence. What happens in the reader’s imagination is more effective – and far more frightening – than anything I could put down on the page.

Q. Which of your own novels is your favourite and why?

A. This is a really tricky one, because I’m the worst person in the world to judge my own books. I still have a soft spot for BLACK DOG, because it was my first book and the one that started it all. But writers like to believe they get better over time, and I think some of my later books are more complex and interesting – and better written! THE DEAD PLACE is one I’ll never forget, because it was a very challenging book to write, and I knew some readers would find it a challenging read, too. So I was thrilled when it became my best-selling book to date.

Q. How long on average does it take you to write a book?

A. I’m contracted for a book a year, so I can’t take much longer. That’s not a problem for me, as BLACK DOG was written in six months, when I still had the day job and could only write in the evenings and at weekends. Now that I’m full time, I feel as though I ought to be able write more than one book a year. But, in fact, the writing is only half the job – there’s all the promotion, marketing, touring, interviews, answering mail from readers, etc, etc. And since I’m self-employed, I’m running a small business, with all the paperwork that involves. Even when I’m actually producing a book, a lot of the time is taken up in research and allowing ideas to connect with each other – which, in my case, usually happens ‘live’ on the page.

Q. Are your family supportive of your writing career? Do they enjoy your books, or do they prefer something different?

A. My wife is a big reader of crime fiction, and always says my books are wonderful (but she has to that say that, doesn’t she?). She’s the one who suffers the ordeal of living with a writer, and she’s very tolerant when I’m in the self-absorbed writing phase. My elderly parents receive a personalized copy of each book as it comes off the press, but I have no evidence that they’ve ever read a single page!

Q. Do you enjoy your book signing tours and visits to various book events, and do you have a favourite place out of all those you’ve visited? Is there anywhere you’d like to go back to when you have more time?

A. Perhaps because the writing itself is very solitary, I love getting out and meeting readers. My books sell all around the world now, with translations in fifteen languages (at the last count), so I’m finding myself in places I would never have expected to visit. About eighteen months ago I flew to Australia to appear at the Melbourne Writers’ Festival with Alexander McCall Smith. I was in the country for about 10 days, but I was so busy with events, signings and interviews that I hardly saw anything of Australia . That’s a place I would definitely like to go back to when I have more time. This September, I’ll be in Alaska for a fan convention – another part of the world I would never otherwise get to, if I didn’t have this writing business as an excuse!

Q. Can you give us a sneak preview of what’s to come next?

A. I’ve just finished work on the 8th Cooper & Fry novel, DYING TO SIN, which is due for publication in the UK in September 2007. It’s set just before Christmas in the Peak District, but there isn’t much comfort and joy for poor old Diane Fry. Construction work at an abandoned farm turns up a dead body and unearths a tragic history at the same time. Oh, and there’s a pantomime, too! I’m contracted for two more novels in the series, so Cooper & Fry will keep me busy through to 2009. After that, who knows?

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