To celebrate the launch of Black Thorn Books, a new publishing imprint dedicated specifically to crime fiction, I interviewed one of their authors, David Hewson, whose book The Savage Shore, part of his Nic Costa series, is being published by Black Thorn. David talks me through his latest novel and how he came to create such an engaging series through his love of reading.
Tell me about how you came to define your writing style. What drew you towards crime fiction?
To be honest I never set out to write crime fiction. I just wanted to write original, mainstream fiction that told big stories with bold narratives. It was only a few books in that I was told I was now a crime writer – not that I mind. And of course many books are now classified as crime which may not have been years ago. And maybe even plays too – is Macbeth a crime story? Possibly. Labels don’t really trouble me. It’s the story that counts.
What is your background and how did you get in to writing professionally?
I left school at 17 to work as a reporter on a little (now vanished) local newspaper in Yorkshire. A few years later I’d graduated to The Times, then the Independent and Sunday Times. But I always wanted to write fiction so gradually I eased back on the journalism and started trying to write fiction. It took a while but in 1996 I came out with my first book, now republished as Death in Seville and after a while I was able to give up journalism altogether.
Please tell me about The Savage Shore. What do you think sets it apart from your other work?
The Savage Shore is the tenth instalment in a series of books based around a young detective, Nic Costa, who works in the historic centre of Rome. There hasn’t been a Costa book for nine years but readers have been nagging me for once constantly. So I decided to bring the old team back but this time in a new place and with a new challenge.
Usually they’re on home ground in Rome, and in charge of events. But here they’re in the foreign ground of Calabria in the south and having to pretend to be something they’re not. They’re trying to engineer the escape of a crime gang lord who wants to turn state witness. But no one knows who the man really is or how they can get him out safely. Nic has to pretend to join the gang to make contact with him, while the rest of the crew have to sit around on the coast struggling to make escape plans while staying undercover.
I wanted this to be a story driven by character, atmosphere and the extraordinary culture of Calabria. There are no car chases and very little in the way of violence. It’s about how difficult it is for people to pretend to be something they’re not – and the price that can make them pay.
Having written books set around the world, what is your favourite place to set a novel and why?
It’s always the one I’m working on at the moment. It has to be that way otherwise I’d get distracted. But somewhere I come back to time and time again, both for stories and for peace for editing, is Venice. It’s such a magical place and with every book I finish there with a read through and an edit in an apartment I rent. It’s almost a superstition by now.
Where do you find your inspiration? Are there any particular places or incidents you draw on when you find yourself with writer’s block?
I’m not sure I’d call it anything as fancy as inspiration. A lot of writing isn’t about intellectual stimulation. It’s about practicality, craft, sweat, labour. The kind of things a painter thinks about when he or she sets out on a canvas. What kind of colours will I use? What brush? What sort of paint? What’s the perspective? The time of day?
When I set out to create a story I try to find a location, some characters and an inciting incident – in this case the gang lord who wants to defect. Then I place all these players on the board and see how they want to approach events. A writer should be in control only up to a certain point. You have to let your cast be true to themselves in order to find the solution.
Following on from that, what do you read yourself and how does this influence your work?
I try to read widely. I don’t think it’s healthy for a writer to read only in the field in which they work. In fact I think that’s unhealthy on occasion – you subconsciously pick up styles or ideas, and worse you miss out on a lot of good writing in other fields. So I read a lot of fiction – mainly but not only history. The past is such a good mirror of what’s happening today, to a startling degree at times. I’m a sucker for anything about ancient Rome and Greece and follow Mary Beard, Robert Harris and Tom Holland avidly. I also like obscure foreign works which take a bit of tracking down. Most recently a fascinating novel set in Ferrara just before World War Two, The Garden of the Finzi-Continis by Giorgio Bassani.
If you could collaborate with anyone, living or dead, on a writing project, who would it be and why?
I’m not a natural collaborator, I must say, but I would love to have worked out how Robert Graves went about writing I, Claudius and how long it took him. There were so many sources for that book and they were all in Latin.
Do you have any projects coming up that you are particularly excited about?
My next book with Black Thorn will be a real departure – the first novel set somewhere I’ve never been. I’m usually big on local research – I signed up for language school to write the Costa books and spent ages in Italy. But you can work straight out of your imagination too. So next year my you’ll meet Devil’s Fjord, a mystery set in the fictional wilds of the Faroe Islands about a couple who retire there thinking it’s paradise, only to discover they got things very wrong.
Are there any new books or writers that you are looking forward to coming up?
No names or titles – as always with books I wait to be surprised.
Thanks to David for taking the time to answer my question. You can find out more about The Savage Shore and Black Thorn HERE.