Among all the novels you have written, only two have been translated into French, Born under Punches and The White Room. You said about them that “these two books were the books you became a writer to write”. Why are they so special for you and different from the others?
Okay. There’s a few answers to this one. They’re actually the first books in French under my own name. I’ve also written a series of thrillers under the name Tania Carver, four of which were published by Ixelles Editions a few years ago. I don’t think the books caught on in France, very big in Germany, though. And they’re doing well in the UK. But yes, back to the stuff under my own name. I owe a great deal of thanks to the brilliant Cathi Unsworth for persuading Rivages to publish them.
I had written three crime novels set in Newcastle before them, all with Stephen Larkin in. With Born Under Punches I wanted to do something a bit more ambitious. Use the crime novel as a social novel but not in a worthy or dull way as is so often the case. I wanted to use it to explore the legacy of the miners’ strike in Britain, mostly in the north. It was such a pivotal event in our country’s history and I think that only now are we seeing the long term impact that Thatcher’s decisive, damaging and detrimental policies had. I still can’t think of her as a human being and when I do think of her all my old anger is still there. I wanted to channel that anger into something worthwhile, hence Born Under Punches.
The White Room came about because of two kind of obsessions of mine: T Dan Smith and Mary Bell. Smith was the leader of the Newcastle City Council, an allegedly committed socialist with hugely ambitious redevelopment plans for the North East of England. If his vision had happened as he originally intended it, it would have either been quite spectacular or all pulled down by now as an example of horrendous brutalist architecture. Unfortunately he allowed that vision to be diluted by easy options, mixing with criminals, back handers, illegal deals . . . everything. And the restructuring he did was really horrible. Most of it’s been pulled down now. Mary Bell was a child killer. When she was eleven she killed two small children just a few street from where I lived. I was the same age as the kids she killed. There was also another girl involved but her parents managed to keep her out of it and let Mary take the rap for both of them. Mary had had a tragic life up until that point. Her mother was an S&M prostitute and Mary was being sold to her punters from six months old. It was a huge case at the time and no one knew what to do with her. She was placed in a rehabilitative environment and now lives under an assumed name. I have an enormous amount of sympathy for her. The genesis of the book was realizing that Mary literally killed in the shadow of one of T Dam Smith’s awful towerblocks. To me that was such a strong image that I had to write the novel to fit round it.
A strange thing happened while I was writing The White Room, or rather several strange things. I’m not given to all that hippy shit bollocks about writers being channellers and all that, but there were some strange coincidences. I bumped into an old college friend in a traffic jam in central London and she told me all about how Dan Smith would come to tea when he was in a open prison and working on their community centre. I met a woman in an art gallery who had made a film about the life of Dan Smith. My oldest friend’s partner had just taken part in a political debate against Smith. And strangest of all, I started to have dreams that pieced together secret hidden histories of Newcastle, things I honestly didn’t know about until I subsequently went to research them. Weird.
You mix fiction with reality, and some of your characters, who have existed, had an impact on your own personal life. In The White Room, Dan Smith was an influential politician in Newcastle during the 60’s and your father used to work with him. Born under Punches relates the miners’ strike of 1984 and you said that it was the one event that politicized you, that it was a pivotal moment for both the country and yourself. Do you think that it is because the reader feels your implication that he is so touched by the stories you tell?
I’d like to think so. As a writer all you want to do is transfer your passion for a story over to the reader. Sometimes it doesn’t work and crashes and burns horribly. Stories that are personal to the writer can be so badly, self-indulgently handled that they end up touching no one. Although I wanted to put all the stuff in that was vitally important to me, I had to make sure that the characters were real and not just ciphers, that the plot was truly engaging and that the reader would be entertained while reading it. Angered, appalled, and enthralled, whatever. But I’m not a journalist, I’m a novelist.
To mix fiction and reality, fictitious persona and people who have really existed, stories set against a background of true events, in order to dissect England’s history… Did you want to expose Newcastle as Ellroy exposed LA, in a way?
That was the idea. Like Ellroy in LA and George Pelecanos in Washington DC. Reclaim the past and make it your own. Present the secret histories of our time. Unfortunately, especially in Britain, no one really cares about Newcastle or the north of England. Or at least not in the south, in London. I remember my agent at the time asking me, ‘Why should I care about the miners’ strike?’ and then telling me, ‘Well if you’re going to write about it, make it sexy.’ LA and Washington DC have a degree of exoticism by being in the States that Newcastle doesn’t. Those two books were a hard sell over here. I had/have others planned too but no one wanted them in Britain. I still want to write them though. And I will, when I get a chance.
You were born in 1963. What are your memories of the miners’ strike? Do you remember the young man you were at that time? Did you listen to a lot of music? Read a lot of books?
Absolutely. I think it was around that time that I was finding what I really loved. I’d just discovered Raymond Chandler and it was not so much like having the windows opened but having the side of the house blown off. And listening to LOTS of music. I particularly like the whole Paisley Underground thing that was happening in the States at that time, the Long Ryders, Green on Red, soundtrack for the era. And I remember the miners’ strike vividly. Especially what was happening locally with what was being reported on the TV. A huge disparity. That’s when I first realized that everything could be manipulated, even news, depending on who gained from it. I’ve got that anger now because it’s still going on now. Just look at our Tory government and what they’re trying to cover up. John Whittingdale, the culture and media secretary, has hidden his affair with an S&M prostitute (a lot of which was paid for through taxpayers money) and the media won’t touch it because he’s bought them off with promises of no regulation. David Cameron starves the poor even further while keeping his millions in off shore accounts. Disgusting. And this is all being disseminated through social media, not mainstream media channels, they won’t touch it until a critical mass builds and they can’t ignore it. I think if we’d had social media then Thatcher wouldn’t have been able to get away with what she did during the miners’ strike.
Sorry. Rant over.
In your two novels, you draw a very sad report of 50 years of politics in England. You depict the end of socialist and humanist utopias in the 50’s and the 60’s, through the fall of Dan Smith (whose dream of a new city, an egalitarian society, “a brave new future was destroyed before it had already been built”), who has finally been convicted of corruption. Do you think that betraying their ideals, politicians have killed the hope for a better world? Does power corrupt?
Unfortunately yes. Or rather not corrupt, as such, in most cases I think it just allows the user to become distanced from what they intended it was for in the first place. The majority of politicians are self-serving, only in it for the money and themselves. Or at least that’s how they end up, no matter how they start out, no matter how good their intentions are. The machinations of the machine take over.
Having said all that, I think that in post war Britain there was still a broad consensus between both parties when they were in power. They both seemed to accept that a kind of public-owned socialism worked alongside a responsible capitalism. Margaret Thatcher took her far right Tory fringe to the centre of the part in 1979 and began dismantling our country. Selling us back utilities we already owned, selling off council houses, creating not so much a working class but a Tory underclass.
Socially, politically, economically, how is England today? Does Thatcher’s politics in the 80’s still have an influence on people’s conditions of living, especially the poorest? Has the election of Tony Blair’s New Labour changed something?
Thatcher changed everything. Blair just continued her work under the guise of being left wing. This government we have now, propagating the lie of austerity, is the worst government Britain has had, certainly in my lifetime. Even worse than Thatcher. More corrupt and much more incompetent. People are starving and dying as a direct result of this government’s policies.
What do you think of the organization of the referendum about staying or not in the EU?
I’m firmly pro. Definitely, absolutely. The EU is a flawed organization, no doubt, but it’s worth sticking with. And the only ones in this country who want to leave are all on the far right. Why would I want to be allied with them?
About your characters, most of them have grown up in a very violent social and family background. And they use violence on weaker than they are. Did you want to show the influence of the environment on personalities?
Definitely. I think we’re all products of hereditary and environment. Again, in everything I write I try to remain true to people as they are and present them as they would be if put up against the situations and circumstances of the novels given their hereditary and environment. I can’t stand fiction that presents characters as having been somehow formed in a vacuum. They’re either good or bad and there’s no in-between. Boring. Dull. Lazy. And those type of writers, if they present a bad character, or someone who does villainous deeds, then they’re presented as some kind of folk monster, not created by the good people here, something or someone we can’t imagine being doing horrific things. It’s like they want the villagers to hunt them with flaming pitchforks. I hate that kind of writing. It’s giving glib, lazy answers to where the monsters among us come from. No. Any monsters in our society are created by us. Actions have consequences. Always. Any writer, who doesn’t show that, especially a crime writer presenting what they claim is a true picture of society, doesn’t deserve to be read.
Jack Smeaton and Stephen Larkin stay true to their principles, they keep their ethics. So it is possible. No one is born evil but everyone has to fight to be a good person?
Yeah. Exactly that. John Lennon said, ‘We’re all Christ and we’re all Hitler.’ Absolutely right. It’s a daily struggle to make sure the right person emerges. And yes, it’s often easier to get rid of your principles and take the east route but I’m always fighting to make sure that doesn’t happen. I suspect most people are too.
Some scenes of your books are so terrible. I think of moments when Monica or Mae as little girls are being raped by men, members of their family, sold, beaten, almost killed. You have a very special way of writing these scenes. You don’t describe the violence but its consequences afterwards. You let the reader fill in the blanks. Do you use ellipsis because it was too hard for you to write details about such horrors, or because horror is worse when it is only suggested and not described?
Thank you. When I came to approach those scenes I was torn between being honest to what was actually happening and presenting that as such, and coming across as gratuitous and sensationalist. But then again, i didn’t want to show that these things hadn’t happened, and hadn’t had the most traumatic of effects. I eventually decided on an approach that I saw as shutting a door on the action itself, hearing screams from behind that door and focusing on the reaction of a character on the other side of the door. And of course, as you say, showing the consequences afterwards. People come up to me and tell me about the terrible things I described in The White Room and when I ask them which part, they realize it’s all been in their head and I never described anything. I just suggested it and showed the aftermath. But that doesn’t mean I didn’t think about it and go through what happened in those scenes in real detail. I did. And it affected me so much that it took a lot to get over it afterwards, probably more than I’m willing to admit.
Your plots are very complex. The lives of your characters are interlinked. You use a lot of flashbacks. But it is easy for the reader to follow the story. Do you make a very detailed outline before you begin the writing?
Well, I used to. Make a huge plan and pin it up on my corkboard and try to follow it rigidly. But then I found it was taking its own turns, and things I’d imagined at the planning stage weren’t fitting in with how the book was going. And then in Born Under Punches one character kept forcing his way into more and more scenes and I kept wondering why. Eventually I realized he was one of the central characters and the whole of the novel orbited around. After that I became a bit freer with the plotting. Now I usually write about a quarter of the novel, using the characters as a kind of audition. If I like their voices, if they’re interesting, then I keep using them. If they’re not working I drop them. Or kill them, even. I also find that if I plan to rigidly it always takes longer in the working out and then needs re-plotting. I think now I just try to trust the process. At the start of a novel these characters may seem disparate and unconnected, but I know that through the course of the narrative their connections will become apparent.
Music plays an important role in your books. You gave each novel the title of a song. Born under Punches is a song of The Talking Heads and The White Room a song of Cream. How do you choose them? At what moment? Do they influence the stories?
Yeah. As I mention elsewhere here, I do love my music. And I can bore on about it at great length. My first novel, back in 1997, was called ‘Mary’s Prayer’. A song by a band called Danny Wilson from the Eighties. It fitted somehow. Then the follow up, ‘Little Triggers’, was named after an Elvis Costello track. And it went on from there. I thought it would be my thing, song titles as book titles. And that continued until the fourth Joe Donovan novel, ’Speak No Evil’. (Cocteau Twins, in case anyone was wondering. Changed by the publisher from my first choice, ‘Murdered Sons’, a Lydia Lunch track). Then came the Tanias and I fancied a change. But even then, the third Tania Novel is based on a line in a Warren Zevon song. Cage of Bones is the name of the book. ‘Excitable Boy’ is the Zevon song.
I do think they influence the novels, though, the titles. I find it hard to get started on a book, to really envision it, without a title. I know some writers who can just call it ‘Untitled Novel #14’ or whatever, but I can’t do that. I need a title to see where I’m going. And because I thought song titles were my thing, I spent a long time trying to find the right title for the right novel. I had to make sure they were the right ones, that they reflected and enhanced the story, that they became a signifier to a reader, and that they weren’t just something slapped on.
In a passage of Born under Punches, Larkin is upset because he has spent the night listening to his old albums (Lloyd Cole, Costello, The Talking Heads, The Smiths). The music has woken up memories and ghosts and it hurts him. Is music an important part of your life? Do you often listen to old albums you loved? Does it hurt?
Yeah, that part was possibly a bit over-indulgent on my part . . . but yes, I’m always listening to music, old and new. Some that I like discovering (old and new) and some stuff that means a lot to me. Tom Waits is probably my all time hero. Sometimes I’ll listen to old stuff and feel sad that I’m not that age any more and never will be again. Any hurt comes from that. The depth of any hurt depends on how much I’ve been drinking at the time… But I also like moving forward. I hate that attitude people have about not listening to current music, that somehow music was better when they were younger, or that use that hated phrase ‘my era’. No, music wasn’t better when you were younger you were just younger and your self-defiing memories were being formed. And this is still ‘my era’ and always will be until they nail the coffin lid down. I’m listening to music as I write this. Sixties Southern soul. Stax Records. A huge passion of mine. It was either that or the new albums by Richmond Fontaine and M Ward. I’ll play them next. Or the Santiago 77 album. Love that. Or Midlake. Or…
Do you use music as a means to describe your characters’ personalities? As a means to talk about the period?
Absolutely. It’s a great short cut in a narrative to showing character or setting an atmosphere or an era. I know writers come in for a bit of criticism for this, especially male ones, because not everyone knows the music or gets the references. And it can look just like that boy’s thing of making lists. I try never to fall into that trap. It’s not a new thing, though. Cornell Woolrich was doing it in the Thirties.
Your novels are dark but, as you said, “not without a redemptive ending. Because there has to be redemption. Otherwise what’s the point? » So, are you an incorrigible optimist? And, above all, as love is part of your “happy endings”, incorrigibly romantic?
God no! Well, not an optimist, certainly. I’d like to think I am, or that some part of me is, otherwise, as I said, what’s the point? But when I look at the news, at the actions of our government, at what corporations are doing to our planet, the Trump circus in the US, I despair. I’m not an optimist but I am a fighter. As for being a romantic… you’d have to ask my girlfriend that!
Can you tell us who is Tania Carver?
My female alter ego… A few years ago now, I was asked by my publisher if I could write a thriller under a female pseudonym. Actually, it was like he bet me I couldn’t do it. I came up with The Surrogate and Tania Carver was born. As I said earlier four of those books were published in France and there are eight in total. It’s been interesting writing as someone else, especially a woman, but I’m ready to be Martyn again now.
You have written a book, unfortunately not yet translated into French, with three others authors, Mark Billingham, David Quantick, Stav Sherez, called Great Lost Albums. The presentation of the book says: « From the 60s to the 00s, with track listings and full histories, Great Lost Albums reveals the recordings that—just perhaps—never existed, but really should have done.” Which band have you chosen to talk to? Why? Was it fun?
Enormous fun. The best fun I’ve ever had writing. The other three are just about the best bunch of people you could want to work with. Great friends, great writers. We didn’t actually talk to any artists, mainly for fear they would try and put an injunction up against us. As it was there was some stuff (usually mine, I have to say) that we couldn’t get past the lawyers. We just holed ourselves up in a hotel in Hastings on the south coast for the weekend and came up with it. I don’t think I’ve ever laughed so much in my life. It wasn’t a massive hit but it should have been. It’s the funniest book ever written (I reckon).
Interview published in New Noise n°34 – july-august 2016