How did your time as a journalist affect your writing?
I wouldn’t be a novelist if I hadn’t been a journalist. It’s all very well having a good grasp of language and a nice turn of phrase, but to write stories that intrigue and compel readers, I believe the characters and situations and the emotions have to feel real. My time as a journalist means I can accurately describe that grief and pain – I can hopefully do justice to the coppers, the criminals and those caught in the crossfire. I can make them more than simple stereotypes. More than anything else, it means I’m accustomed to deadlines and being shouted at, which can never be overstated in terms of a life skill.
When did you come up with the idea for the McAvoy novels?
There’s never really a thunderbolt moment when it comes to writing a novel. There are good ideas, but there’s a big difference between a good idea and a bestselling book. I had the flash of inspiration for the first McAvoy novel while walking up to see my friend – a big, pleasant copper who lived near me and had seen plenty of horrible things. I had half an idea about a miserable journalist accidentally committing murder and ending up in possession of a gun with six bullets. But that book never became much more than a depressing attempt at literary fiction. The only thing that worked was the minor character of a giant, clumsy, shy detective who loves his wife and wants to make a positive impact on the world, so when I needed a hero for a new book that had popped into my head about somebody killing sole survivors, I resurrected the character of McAvoy and fleshed him out. He’s been looking after me ever since.
How long do you see the series going for?
As long as people want to read them and publishers want to pay me for them. I don’t like the notion that people who make their living in the creative industries are essentially well-remunerated hobbyists. I adore what I do, but it’s also my job.
Which one is your favourite instalment so far?
In all honesty, it’s the next one, Cold Bones, which is out in January. It’s the book I’ve always wanted to write. Dark, beautiful, haunting, and guaranteed to make you worry about the mental health of the author.
Why crime fiction?
All fiction is crime fiction. Human beings are obsessed with death. We’re the only species that worries about this notion of justice and consequence. Dead bodies are a good starting point for stories that take in the full range of human emotion and interaction; the best and worst of who we are. Writers of genre fiction sometimes get pigeon-holed as hacks who just churn stuff out. I take great umbrage at that. I use death to explore the light and shade of life. That sounds so pretentious I could almost pass for a literary novelist!
Have you dabbled in any other genres?
I wrote a historical novel last year which people liked a lot. The Zealot’s Bones is set in 1850 and a killer is using an outbreak of cholera to cover his macabre crimes. It’s about redemption and is set at the fulcrum of a changing world, and to me it feels very relevant to life today. I’ve dabbled in short stories and written for radio and the stage, and I’ve got another book coming out next year, which is sort of a spy story and sort of an exploration of loneliness and grief. It’s set in the 1960s in a tiny hamlet on Hadrian’s Wall and delves back into a wartime atrocity.
What would you do if you weren’t an author?
Weep and wail and beat my fists on the door of the nearest publisher and apologise for whatever it was I said or did or wrote that caused me to get the boot. I’m no good at anything else.
What’s your favourite book?
That changes every day, but I’ll go with Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks because it’s utterly beautiful, while exploring all that is awful about humanity. Just my cup of tea.
Who are some other authors you admire?
Margaret Atwood, Dennis Lehane, Hilary Mantel, Pat Barker, Sarah Moss, Sarah Hall, Ian Rankin, Val McDermid, Mari Hannah, Stav Sherez… the list goes on. If you’d asked me for the list of authors I don’t admire you’d have had a much more interesting answer.
What’s your favourite thing about Hull and your favourite thing about Northumberland?
Hull? The air. It’s got attitude. It’s all salt and diesel and animal feed and fresh bread and mouldy clothes. One inhalation and I’ve got a vision of an old bloke in a donkey jacket sellotaping flowers to a rotten lock-gate, wiping tears away with strong hands, patterned with faded blue ink and probably missing a finger. It’s a city that is always the primary character of my work. It just makes me want to write about it. As for Northumberland, I’ll be honest and say it’s the views. I keep stopping the car as I drive over towards Weardale, convinced I’ve suddenly driven through a cosmic worm-hole and landed in the Norwegian fjords or the Canadian Rockies. It’s like living in a snow-globe.