Following the recent publication of his 20th printed crime novel, I interview revered mystery writer John Dean.
Tell me about how you came to define your writing style. What drew you towards crime fiction writing?
I had always written and children’s fiction and humour were my first loves but without much success, so I followed the old adage of ‘write about what you know’. Since my career as a journalist saw me specialise in crime, the synergy was an obvious one.
Please tell me more about your background. How did you become a professional writer?
I worked on newspapers all over the UK for 19 years then spent 21 years as a freelancer, all the time learning from skilled colleagues about the way that words work. At the same time, I was writing novels without being accepted by a publisher. Then I saw that a journalist had secured a crime fiction deal with Robert Hale. Like all writers, I had a novel lying around but one on which I had given up (a DCI John Blizzard story). I sent it off and it did not come back. I kept having crime novels published then, when Hale ceased publishing a number of years ago, I was picked up by The Book Folks, who have published me ever since. In March 2020, I took retirement from journalism and now focus on my novels.
Talk me through your books. Why do you believe they have become so popular?
I think that what success I have enjoyed is down to a mixture of strong plots, realistic characters, well-drawn landscapes and a pace which keeps the story moving. For me, they are the key pillars of successful writing and I also think it is crucial to keep learning and seek to continually improve. I try to learn from everyone, ranging from my editors to readers’ reviews if they make valid points in a constructive manner.
Where do you find your inspiration? Are there any particular places or incidents you draw on when you find yourself with writer’s block?
Fortunately, I do not experience writer’s block. As a writer, I am usually inspired by a sense of place. Let me take you back a few years to a hillside in the North Pennines in an attempt to show you what I mean.
I was on a family holiday and we were staying in a village on the Durham/Cumbrian border. There was a play area in the middle of the village and every evening my two children would go for a swing and I would wander out to keep an eye on them – they had gone past the ‘Dad, give me a push’ stage but had not quite reached the stage where they could be left alone. In such circumstances, a person has a lot of time to think and, as they swung, I found myself staring at the hillside opposite.
Something about the hill’s slopes and its late evening shadows, the way the buzzards hunted across the ridge, the sound of the sheep bleating and the distant barking of a farm dog, worked their magic on me. By the end of the week, an idea was born, blending landscape and its effect on the people who live within it with the theme of wildlife crime, something on which I had reported extensively as a journalist. Then came the character; I had been toying with the idea of a disillusioned detective finding his senses re-awakened by the northern hills. Eventually, it turned into Dead Hill, the first in my DCI Jack Harris series, which is published by The Book Folks.
Oh, and the children are both grown-up now!
If you could collaborate with anyone, living or dead, on a writing project, who would it be and why?
The two writing groups of which I am a member – the Inkerman Writers in Darlington, County Durham, and the Gallery Writers in Kirkcudbright in South West Scotland. Previous collaborations have been very happy ones and both groups are packed with talent.
Do you have any projects coming up that you are particularly excited about?
I have been developing my online crime fiction writing courses. I have already taught several aspiring writers from the UK and abroad and it has been a joy to be exposed to their enthusiasm and talent. I also run weekend courses from my 19th Century hillside home in South West Scotland – Covid wiped out the entire 2020 programme but I hope we can run them again in 2021. Oh, and I’ve had this idea for a novel…!
Are there any new books or writers that you are looking forward to in the future?
I am looking forward to the careers of the excellent Ian Patrick and Jackie Baldwin continuing to develop (both have strong connections with the area in southern Scotland where I live) Also looking forward to the next steps in the career of new names who have been signed up by the Book Folks – people like Bud Craig with his private detective stories and David Pearson and his popular series of novels set in Ireland.
Is there anything you’d like to add?
The latest DCI Jack Harris book Kill Shot (The Book Folks, published October 25, 2020) is my twentieth crime novel to make it into print.
Thanks John for answering my questions, I’m excited to check out your 20th printed crime fiction novel!