Today I’m delighted to welcome Keith Dixon to Virtual Book Club, the interview series in which authors have the opportunity to pitch their novels to your book club.
Keith says that he began writing as a presumptuous teenager – producing scripts for the TV show ‘The Avengers’ and sending them off full of anticipation and ambition. Undeterred by the lack of response, he started to write short-stories and then full-length books, writing seven novels in a period of two years when he chose unemployment over paid work. He found an agent for his science fiction stories, who sold a story for him … but unfortunately the agent died, and the agency with him.
Keith went on to study law and hated it, so he took a series of low-paid jobs (including proofreader for Rolls-Royce) while he continued to write. Eventually he enrolled on a creative arts degree, studying English with Creative Writing and Drama, gaining a First Class degree. That enabled him to study for a Masters in English Literature. He then taught English and American Literature at various colleges for the next half a dozen years, before, he says, the low pay became too onerous. At which point he became a recruitment advertising copywriter. Soon bored with this, he retrained as an Organisational Psychologist and spent 19 years working with large organisations on team building and leadership, before giving it up to write full-time. Of his roundabout career path, Keith says, ‘I think I’ve settled down now.’
He has recently released One Punch, which will be the subject of your discussion today.
“Paul Storey is an ex-cop looking for a job. Bran Doyle was a boxer but he’s now looking for a driver. And perhaps a little more.
Storey takes the job but soon finds himself involved in more than driving. There’s a murder. And conspiracy. And another murder.
And then the real trouble starts.”
“A Superb crime thriller from a master of the genre.”
Q: Keith, we already know a little about how you came to be a writer, but why do you write?
Because I can’t not. There were some years when I didn’t write fiction, but I was involved in creative work of a different kind – copywriting, or working with students, for example. Now I find I finish a book and within quite a short space of time I get the urge to start shaping a world with words, making stuff up because it’s interesting and satisfying at a level I don’t understand.
Q: What was your first recognition or success?
At the age of twenty-three I snagged an agent in London, who sold a science fiction short story for me. Lovely man who took me to a science fiction conference in Coventry (where I lived) and introduced me to a lot of science fiction legends. I was introduced as a ‘local author’. Me! He sold a short story for me to a magazine that folded immediately after it was published. I tell myself there was no connection.
Q: Have you had any rejections that have inspired or motivated you?
I had a rejection from the great Michael Moorcock at New Worlds. He wrote a little note that I kept for a number of years: ‘This almost made it. Keep trying. MM.’ (It was actually the same short story that was finally published, see above.)
Q: We already know that you abandoned science fiction in favour of crime fiction, but what can readers expect?
Plots that are intricate without being complicated. Characters that seem like real people. Dialogue that is both full of conflict and witty. Entertainment and engagement.
Q: What is it about One Punch that makes it particularly suitable for book clubs?
It’s the second in a new series, ‘Paul Storey Crime Thrillers’, which is my attempt to broaden my style. My first series of novels, ‘Sam Dyke Investigations’, were cast in a conventional Private Eye form – mostly written in the first person and focusing on Sam Dyke as he followed clues and tried to discover the heart of the crime. Not classic ‘whodunnits’ as such, but easily recognisable in their genre. (A small boast … two of them earned First in Category in Chanticleer Reviews CLUE awards for Private Eye/Noir novels, so they were obviously meeting the criteria!)
The Paul Storey novels, on the other hand, are intended to take a wider view. So while Storey is himself the central character, the story shifts regularly to other characters’ perspectives to try to understand their motivation, their situation, and their decision-making processes. I’d hope that this broader perspective makes them interesting for Book Club members inasmuch as there’s lots of scope for discussion of the different characters and their relationship to Storey himself – why did they do what they did? Why did Storey react in this or that way? And so on. Plus, the fact that it’s the second in a series means there’s another book to go back to, to find out more, and there’s more to come in order to learn What Storey Did Next.
Q: Why do you think crime fiction has moved from Whodunnit to why did they do it?
Part of the progress of the 20th and 21st centuries has been towards understanding individual psychology at a deeper level. The shallow motives of villains in Agatha Christie and her peers’ work won’t really suffice today – we expect more depth because we have a more refined view of individual motivation. For me, on a technical level, I’ve been influenced by the great American crime writers who came after Chandler – Ross Macdonald, Richard Price, Elmore Leonard, Robert Crais, George Pelecanos, Dennis Lehane. These and others have painted a broader social canvas and found ways to include more and varied points of view in their work. I think readers now expect more than a straightforward solution to a crime: they want to understand more.
Q: Where is the book set and how did you decide on its setting?
One Punch is set in Coventry, the town I was brought up in, and which in truth I don’t know very well. I left when I was twenty-five and only visited afterwards to see my parents. It’s changed a lot but my protagonist, Paul Storey, has also been away for a long time, and what’s new to me is new to him, so that works as part of his character development.
Q: Did you incorporate any real life characters into your novel? If so how?
The character of Bran ‘One Punch’ Doyle is at least partly based on the London fighter Lennie McLean. I borrowed some of his background and how he got his start in his profession. He himself makes a small appearance when Doyle is showing film of one of his earlier fights and claims that McLean, and other fighters, were in the audience.
Q: Did you know where One Punch was going to go right from the start?
I’ve learned that the best way for me to write is to structure the story well in advance. I spend weeks laying out the plot, then the chapters, then the scenes within the chapters. However, as I write, I’m constantly analysing whether I need more or less and whether the structure is still working. So while I always know where the book is going, how I get there can change and even some of the final details. For example, I often find that an action I have slated for later in a book doesn’t find its real motivation until I’ve written some of the earlier part. Then I have an ‘Ah-ha! That explains it … !’ moment where something becomes clear to me.
It always seems obvious when you’ve finished! I spend a long time mind-mapping possible events for the book and somehow they seem to spark ideas for the ending. In One Punch I hope the ending is absolutely obvious once you get there, but hopefully hard to have seen coming!
Q: In the creative process, do you hone in on the detail and then pan out to the bigger picture or the reverse?
I begin with a general feel for the locations, the characters, the atmosphere … then I work up the storyline and get a general sense of what the structure should look like – beginning, middle, end. Finally I zoom in on the individual scenes and write very complete outlines for each one.
Q: Tell us a little about the major areas you had to research.
I like my books to enter a different world each time, and this one involved researching unlicensed boxing. I knew nothing about this but it seems to have been a bit of an underworld since the 1950s and is probably still going on now. It didn’t use to be illegal as such (I can’t speak for the current law) and it seems to have been rather like cage-fighting or MMA (Mixed Martial Arts) are today – but without the level of fitness and skill those fighters demonstrate. I also had to find out more about construction work as part of the plot involves the building of a gym.
Q: Patricia Cornwell took a job in a morgue to research her books. What is the darkest place your research took you?
A Little Chef on the road between Nantwich and Chester. Don’t make me go there again …
Q: Are you looking to entertain or illuminate?
I used to have a theory that writers mostly begin because they have a didactic urge – they want to ‘tell’ people stuff. Fiction is just a way of disguising their own voice in the telling. I think that’s still true to some extent, but since I’ve been writing genre fiction I’ve become more aware that readers have expectations of books so it’s up to me to satisfy those. If a little bit of a ‘moral’ comes out of it, then okay – but it shouldn’t be obvious or in-your-face.
Q: So how do you make crime fiction entertaining without adding to the problem?
All fiction is about conflict and growth in one way or another. For me, the entertainment comes from seeing people with different personalities, backgrounds and skills in conflict with each other. In my books I try to make the villains reasonably intelligent – or, if they’re not, at least amusing in their stupidity. In the Sam Dyke books the villain is often highly intelligent and therefore has feelings of superiority which my working-class hero has pleasure in bursting. In the Paul Storey books, so far, the villains have been a little bit dumber but entertaining because they have no idea they’re so dumb.
Q: Crime fiction and televised crime dramas have made a huge comeback. Why do you think readers and viewers are drawn to dark subject-matter?
I think it’s the old Aristotelian thing about wanting to experience ‘fear and pity’ in order to go through a purging of the emotions. When our fears are roused we become fully engaged in the subject and the surrounding world disappears for a while. We feel pity for the victims and think, in some way, there but for the grace of God go I. So the world around us, when we come out of the fugue-like state, appears safer and more welcoming afterwards. Having been down in the pit we can appreciate the sunny uplands more readily.
Q: Finally, how many of your own fears are reflected in your fiction? How much is it about trading on your readers’ fears?
Many of my books come out of stories I’ve heard from others or read in the press, and an idea has gripped me and seemed worth investigating. Perhaps it’s gripped me because it’s raised a fear, but it feels more like an intellectual curiosity than a fear as such. For example, the whole idea of the Sam Dyke series was to put a working-class Yorkshire private detective at work in the country-club world of Cheshire to see what sparks would fly. The Paul Storey books so far have been taken from tales I heard and thought about for a while … in fact I was gratified that one reviewer of One Punch said something to the effect that she was pleased to read a crime story that wasn’t based on a shocking twist and that it all seemed very plausible. I’d rather engage and amuse readers than frighten them – that can only lead to diminishing returns as you try to come up with something to top your last frightening book.
If you enjoyed this interview please share it with like-minded friends. Just a reminder that for the month of June, I will be donating all profits from sales of An Unknown Woman, Writing Magazine’s Self-Published Book of the Year 2016 to the British Red Cross Fire Relief Fund, which will help support victims of the Grenfell Tower Fire.
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