With a focus on serial killers, Norman M Brown’s writing takes readers deep into the heart of a mystery. I invited him to talk me through his work and how he crafts his often terrifying narratives.
Tell me about how you came to define your writing style. What drew you towards serial killer books?
My writing style is very much an extension of how I speak. I try to keep my novels short enough to read on flight or on a couple of hours, but still pack a punch in terms of plot. My typical narrative voice is conversational, but that is intentionally designed to ease readers in a world that is brimming with dangers. I try to keep the descriptions lean, and reduce chapters down to the most relevant information. If my writing were compared to painting I’d be more of an impressionist than a realist. This is mainly because, I often feel a little cheated when I pick up a book that is packed with superfluous description of every object in a room, or if there’s a ten-page explanation of the coffee shop in which the protagonist briefly pauses. I love writers who can establish an atmosphere or scene through a couple of key descriptions or objects. That leaves space for the reader to add elements from their own imagination.
In regard to my interest in Serial Killer fiction, like many crime writers, I spent most of my teenage years gleefully devouring horror novels– from the Gothic vampires and undead of Victorian classics, to the contemporary monsters of Stephen King and Clive Barker. Later on, as undergraduate, I learned how these monsters often serve as mirrors reflecting the fears and anxieties of the society which spawned them. In that respect, serial killers-whether real or imagined- are our 21st century monsters. The problem is that they are no longer so easily identifiable by their hideous appearance on their sprawling castle in the mountains. The work in our offices, live in our streets and smile to us as we pass them. That’s what fascinates and scares me. My novels are my attempt to exorcise those fears.
What is your background in writing and how did you get in to writing thrillers?
I have written fiction throughout my entire adult life, but my interest in writing a Crime Thriller was a direct result of forgetting to take my Kindle on holiday two years ago. I arrived in the villa and sighed with genuine relief when I discovered a fully stocked bookcase. However, the books were almost all Crime Thrillers One the first books I read was The Black Echo by Michael Connelly. I enjoyed the book so much that I decided to set myself a personal challenge – to create my own detective and take him on a journey that people would hopefully want to experience. Having taught high school English for a couple of decades, I knew the elements of setting and character that appealed to me, so it was simply a case of sitting down with my laptop and tapping it out.
Tell me about your books. How did you come to write them and what was the inspiration behind them.
The Girl on the Bus has an element of personal experience: about twenty years ago, I took a bus from Stirling to Inverness in the Highlands , a journey of over three hours through the picturesque but isolated Cairngorms National Park. The trip was lovely and the scenery stunning. Stirling merged into Perth then Perth into Pitlochry. As I sank into my bus seat, complete with curtained window and a complimentary cup holder, I lost myself in the pages of a cheap paperback book. Occasionally, I would drift off and wake with my face sliding on the cold glass of the window. But at some point, as the bus weaved its way through the rugged mountains, I realised that the dramatic landscape outside was quite devoid of civilisation. If anything happened to the coach party out there, no one would ever know. Then, in the typically morbid spirit of any crime fiction fan, I considered how terrible it would be if anyone on that solitary bus was actually a killer. Glancing nervously around at my fellow commuters, I studied their faces for traces of psychopathy, and concluded that they all had potential (it was Scotland after all). I then hit on an even more worrying possibility. What if everyone on the bus, including the driver, were actually killers? It would be a mobile crime scene. And what if that bus picked up a naïve passenger who felt safe because there were plenty of other people on the bus with them? That idea grew into my first published novel.
Carpenter Road was the result of the research I had carried out for the first book. The story was inspired by the setting. When writing the first Leighton Jones novel – The Girl on the Bus- I wanted to make the central character as real as possible, without getting too tangled up in backstory. I therefore tried to include just enough details from the past to give the reader a sense of the Leighton’s history, and hopefully make him a little more three dimensional.
In that capacity, there are a couple of times in the book when police officers make references to a historical incident at Black Mountain involving Leighton Jones. We never find out what this incident was, but some of Leighton’s colleagues seem impressed by it. We are also told that the incident also resulted in Gretsch becoming Chief of Oceanside P.D. In his typical style, Leighton is reluctant to speak about it. Carpenter Road is the story of that incident.
I got the seed of the idea when I was originally researching the San Diego area whilst writing the first novel. As I poured over the maps, I made notes on any places of interest. Most of the time I was looking for good places to hide a sinister old bus. However, sometimes I would simply notice an intriguing place name. One such name was Black Mountain. When I first read those two words, my mind was flooded with images. It sounded like the perfect place for the climax of that novel. To me, the name conjured up images of a craggy place – some fusion of Tolkien’s Mount Doom and Castle Dracula. After pouring a cup of coffee, I sat down at my computer and began looking at images and street views of Black Mountain. I felt my heart sink…
Rather than some sinister location, Black Mountain was actually a rather picturesque area of California, complete with a private development of luxury homes. However amongst the many images, I discovered one that hinted at a darker side to this beautiful part of the country. It was a picture taken from the fascinating website: hiddensandiego.net, featuring an old mineshaft in Black Mountain Canyon. Obviously, there was no way to take my scary old bus into a mineshaft – although I did eventually use the idea of it tumbling into a canyon – so I saved the images in a folder of potential locations.
In that same folder were images relating to a second place name that had also struck a chord with as I read it was Carpenter Road. For some reason it reminded of the absolutely terrifying The Walrus and the Carpenter by C.S. Lewis – you can easily find it online if you’re brave enough. I had read the narrative poem at university and it gave me nightmares. In the poem, the eponymous characters are described walking along a beach where they encounter a group of little oysters. The seemingly respectable convince compliant little oysters to accompany them on a walk to some distant rock. Upon stopping for a rest, the oysters look in horror as their two new friends produce bread and vinegar and begin to feed. Many academics have debated the significance of these two characters, but to me they were simply killers.
Once I had completed The Girl on the Bus, I sat down in front of the computer to write the prequel and opened the folder of locations. Seeing images of both Black Mountain and Carpenter Road together was enough to ignite my imagination. I therefore decided to write a story involving a character that shows up – like the Walrus and the Carpenter– in desolate places to kill whoever they want. Fortunately, for me, Carpenter Road in Oceanside is a fairly deserted place at night and fits the idea well.
As for Black Mountain and the old arsenic mines, I decided that this would serve as the belly of the beast for Leighton Jones. A mineshaft is dark and remote. Not the sort of place you want to enter to confront a serial killer. So the settings helped inspire the story. Of course I still had to consider how a traffic officer – as Leighton was at the time – would become embroiled in the case. I figured that the simplest way would be to start off with a car, a missing person, and a witness that nobody would believe. At that point I knew I had a story that even as the writer had me hooked. Hopefully it will have a similar effect on some readers too.
When choosing books to read, what style of writing do you enjoy yourself? Are there any particular writers you admire?
I like Cormac McCarthy. He has a wonderful for voices, and his prose is sometimes so sparse that it almost seems like poetry. I also like the old masters – especially Ray Bradbury who imbued much of his writing with a feeling of real affection for all aspects of life. In terms of my own genre, Michael Connelly gets my respect for his meticulous research, and the scale of the world he has built around Detective Harry Bosch.
If you could collaborate with any person, living or dead, on a writing project, who would it be and why?
Michael Connelly for the reasons given above. I would love to see how Leighton Jones would cope with working alongside Harry Bosch.
Have you got any projects coming up that you are particularly excited about?
Yes, my third Leighton Jones novel, Toys in the Dust takes my protagonist to his first unofficial missing persons case. It is loosely based upon two of the oldest, most disturbing cold cases in history: Maria Ridulph and The Beaumont Children. However, I wanted to write about an abduction case in which the child escapes from their captor, and has to rely on their wits to survive.
Are there any new books or writers that you are looking forward coming up?
I have been looking forward to Leave No Trace by Mindy Mejia. I have always been drawn to stories involving woods and forests. Add a disappearance or two and you have me ready to turn those pages.
Anything you’d like to add?
Just my thanks to you for taking an interest in my work.
It’s been great to hear from you, thanks ever so much for answering my questions. You can find out more HERE.