Following on from my review of his novel Veteran Avenue, I spoke to Mark Pepper about his writing and what he thinks makes truly great crime fiction.
Tell me about how you came to define your writing style. What drew you towards crime and mystery fiction?
I’ve never given any thought to my writing ‘style’ and have never considered trying to adopt one. I hope I write with style rather than in one. My sole intention has only ever been to write well, with fluidity and intelligence. It’s clearly not up to me to say if that’s worked; that’s up to the reader. I think if a writer tries too hard to adopt a certain style, they run the risk that their expression becomes subservient to a certain effect they hope to achieve. You see this in some ‘literary’ work, where the meaning takes second-place to the word-play the writer believes is clever. For me, clever writing is simply that which the reader only has to read once to understand.
Again, the genre is not one I pursued; it was just the natural vehicle for the tale I wanted to tell, in this case Veteran Avenue. But I have always enjoyed stories that keep the reader guessing, so I do enjoy the mystery element, and crime fiction is something that never seems to go out of fashion. It is one of our strange human foibles that, as much as we fear pain and death in real life, we cannot get enough of it in books and films when it happens to someone else.
What is your background in writing and how did you get in to writing crime fiction?
I tinkered with some (dark dark) poetry at university (it’s on my website), as befitted my mood, but properly started writing in 1991, about a year after leaving RADA, when I realised my plan to crack Hollywood was beginning to run a tad behind schedule. It was an alternative outlet. And I had read some stuff I wasn’t too impressed with, so challenged myself to do better.
My first novel was entitled Returntime, which got me an agent, but by that time I was halfway through The Short Cut, which was taken on in a two-book deal by Hodder & Stoughton. That and Man on a Murder Cycle were published hardcover and paperback between 1996 and 1998. They were both horror/thrillers. There’s a story behind the near-twenty-year gap until Veteran Avenue, but I’ll leave that for another day. At the heart of Veteran Avenue is the core idea from Returntime, so Veteran Avenue is actually the first book I wanted to write. But, although there is crime in it, it’s not really a crime novel in the traditional sense.
How do you draw on your work as an actor when writing? Do you use any of the skills you gained in this profession when creating a new book?
Excellent question. I think I have a very good ‘ear’ for dialogue, but whether I’d have that without my acting experience I don’t know. I certainly ‘run’ the lines out loud to make sure they sound right, as actors do with their scripts. I find that bad dialogue in a novel can ruin the otherwise sterling work of the narrative, so I believe it’s just as important in a novel as it is in a movie screenplay. Novelists really do need to ‘run’ their dialogue for authenticity. I find it off-putting when I read dialogue that’s not only unrealistic for the character, but for any human being.
It’s also possible I use my acting head to view the scenes as I’m writing them; something Stephen King brilliantly dubbed his ‘Skull Cinema’. I see everything as though I’ve seen the movie of the book, but that’s probably more from a director’s than actor’s point of view.
I definitely approach character building with an eye to my acting training. I think about how I would tackle the character for the screen. What traits and behaviours do they exhibit? What’s their back-story? It all helps to build three-dimensional characters that engage the reader. Having said that, I don’t believe in banging the reader over the head with character information and description that holds up the narrative, such as their appearance. There are two characters in Veteran Avenue who I give an age to and nothing more. Unless a character’s physical appearance is crucial for the plotting, I think it’s perfectly okay to do that. A lot can be gleaned from a character’s speech and behaviour, and the other characters’ response to them, and the reader’s Skull Cinema fills in the blanks on the rest. I think it’s fun to let the reader do that.
What features do you believe are vital to creating good crime fiction?
Apart from the obvious, such as clever plotting, a writer needs to get their facts straight. Research is paramount, especially when you’re dealing with crime and police procedure. It bugs the crap out of me when writers have clearly not done their homework, and have instead relied on what they think they know to be true, often trusting TV clichés or mistakes so oft-repeated in books that they have become accepted. For example, the myth of a sympathetic cop closing the eyes of a murder victim with the gentle downward stroke of two fingertips. It can possibly be done within the first hour after death, but not beyond. I know this because I attended an embalming as research for Man on a Murder Cycle and watched the undertaker superglue the open eyelids shut – something he said he always had to do.
Where do you take your inspiration? Are there any rituals you do to get yourself in the mood for writing?
I know this may sound weird, but my main inspiration comes not from great writing but from bad. Nothing is as certain to get me tapping at the keyboard as someone else’s published work I have had to discard because it was poorly written. I think aspiring authors can be put off if they look at the greats because they think: Well, I could never write something like that. So they don’t bother trying. Far better to read something awful and think: Bloody hell, I could do better than that.
I have no rituals, as such. I need a good few hours so I can get a flow going, and I do prefer silence.
If you could collaborate with anyone, living or dead, on a writing project, who would it be and why?
Stephen King. I haven’t read any of his stuff for years, but I have most of his early work. He did inspire me – in all the right ways.
Have you got any projects coming up that you are particularly excited about?
I’ve started a fourth novel but I try not to get too excited about it all these days. I’ve had too many let downs in the past. Excitement creates expectations, and they are the source of much misery in this world.
Anything you’d like to add?
My favourite bit of writing advice: Give the reader what they want, but not in the way they expect it. When you work that one out, your plotting shifts up several gears.
Thanks for taking the time Mark; it’s been a pleasure. You can find out more about him and his writing HERE.