Internationally renowned thriller writer Grant McKenzie talks me through his background in journalism, his writing style and just how important his readers are to him.
Tell me about how you came to define your writing style. What drew you towards darker fiction?
Growing up in Scotland in the 1960s when unemployment, violence and alcoholism was rampant with hair the colour of a blazing sunset, I automatically stood out as a visible minority in a sea of bland blond and dull brunette. And from an early age, I was well aware that this also made me a target. There are a couple of ways to deal with this: become a bad ass or develop the gift of the gab. Needless to say, I wasn’t much of a bad ass. By becoming a storyteller, with lightning fast quips, I was able to make friends and surround myself with the type of people who would watch my back. But I never forgot that I was vulnerable, as were so many others, and this allowed my writing to explore the dark alleyways without losing any of the fear that is necessary for writing that is both identifiable and relatable. This is one of the reasons that my characters tend to be ordinary people ¾ bus drivers, failed actors, photojournalists, child protection officers ¾ rather than kick-ass, Jack Reacher-style super heroes. I often think that many of the young rappers who spit rhythms with jaguar-like reflexes today are tapping into a similar defence mechanism from their own childhoods.
What is your background in writing and how did you get in to writing thrillers?
I have been writing from a very early age, from plays and short stories while living in Scotland, to tackling my first novel (heavily influenced by S.E. Hinton) as a teenager in Canada. When I landed my first journalism job at a daily tabloid in Canada at age 19, I was placed on the Dead Body Beat where I was responsible for monitoring the police radio and keeping an ear out for any “interesting” dead bodies that popped up during the night. This unique position allowed me to spend a lot of time wondering “what if”, which fed my imagination. As a journalist, I was there to observe and report, which was frustrating when it seemed that justice wasn’t been done. As a fiction writer, however, I could step beyond the boundaries of my profession and seek justice on the page. A good example of that frustration can be seen in my novel K.A.R.M.A., which is an acronym for Kids Against Rape Murder Abuse.
How does your work in journalism influence your novels? How do you draw on this experience when you write?
The main gifts that journalism gave me were the ability to question authority, never be afraid to ask the difficult questions, always be curious, and never stop learning new things. It’s amazing how placing the right phone call to the right person can open a door that you might never have realized you needed. Want to visit a city morgue? Call the coroner. Need information on what it means to be a sniper? Talk to a veteran. If you show genuine interest and respect, most people are happy to talk.
What was behind your decision to write under a pen name as well as your own? How do you believe this impacts on your readers’ perceptions of your work?
I have written three mystery novels under the pen name M.C. Grant, because I didn’t want the readers of those novels to know that I was male. I wrote Angel With A Bullet, Devil With A Gun, and Beauty With A Bomb in first-person female, which was a lot of fun. My protagonist is Dixie Flynn, a fast talking, kick-ass crime reporter who has a tendency to become too involved in her stories and gets in way over her head. Dixie is one of my favourite characters as she puts on such a tough exterior but is a real marshmallow inside. The pen name wasn’t much of a secret so sometimes female readers look for flaws they can point to as being written by a man. Strangely, even though I also write strong female characters in my Grant McKenzie novels, I never get this same criticism for them. Because the writing styles of the two names are so different, I often get readers who love both, and some who prefer one over the other.
Your works have been translated into a number of different languages. How does this affect your work and what do you believe is the secret behind its international success?
Being translated is wonderful, and I wish more of my books were being published in other countries. My current publisher is based in the U.S., and it also distributes the books in the U.K. But if a U.K. publisher bought the rights instead, the book would be given a better opportunity to be in stores, receive professional reviews, etc. The goal of every author is to sell as many foreign rights as possible, as that is the only way to ensure some success in those countries. I have been fortunate in that some of my books have been translated and published in Germany, China, Taiwan, etc., but I am always bugging my agent to sell more foreign rights. For example, French thriller readers love Harlan Coben, an author I often get compared to, so why am I not in France yet? Or Spain or Brazil. The secret is really about finding an agent who tells the world how wonderful you are, and convinces publishers to take a chance on you.
If you could collaborate with anyone, living or dead, on a writing project, who would it be and why?
As a teenager, I scoured every used bookstore I could find until I had every Mickey Spillane paperback he ever wrote. I loved the hard-boiled language, violence and non-stop thrills. Before he passed away, I had this idea of reaching out to him to collaborate on a novel about Mike Hammer and Velda’s estranged son. I think it would have been magical.
Have you got any exciting new plans or projects coming up that you’d like to share with me?
The Butcher’s Son is my tenth novel and the final book in my latest contract, so I am currently trying to decide what my next move should be. I do have an interesting plot bubbling in my head though.
Are there any new books or writers that you are looking forward to later in the year?
I always get excited when I hear of a new Robert McCammon, John Sandford, Joe R. Lansdale, Andrew Vachss, Joe Hill, Neil Gaiman, Stephen Hunter, or James Rollins novel on the horizon.
Anything you’d like to add?
I’d just like to say how incredibly important my readers have been to me. When I’m feeling down, or struggling to understand my place in this challenging industry, I often get a positive note on my Facebook page, or a positive review on Amazon that really lifts my spirits and lets me know I’m on the right path. I keep trying to make every book better than the last, and it’s the support and encouragement of my readers that makes it all worthwhile.
Thanks ever so much to Grant for taking the time to talk to me, it’s been a pleasure. To find out more about Grant and his writing have a look at his website HERE.