Got back from Bouchercon early this morning, in no condition to write something original. (You're welcome.) In my stead, Rob Kitchin has graciously consented to submit to Twenty Questions for your amusement and edification. Rob lives in Ireland where he works in a research institute and is a regular media commentator on social and planning issues. He is also the author of dozens of short stories, and four novels. Stumped, which Patti Abbott calls "Intricate, terrifying, and thrillingly propulsive,” is out now from 280 Steps in paperback and e-formats.
One Bite at a Time: Tell us about Stumped.
Rob Kitchin: It's a screwball noir set in Ireland with a first date, a severed finger, a vicious Dublin gangster, an ambitious politician, a rockabilly cop, corrupt developers, a nosy journalist, and drag queen farmers.
OBAAT: Where did you get this idea, and what made it worth developing for you? (Notice I didn’t ask “Where do you get your ideas?” I was careful to ask where you got this idea.)
RK: I’ve no recollection at this stage, I’m afraid. I wrote the first draft of the book 15 years ago. I set out to write a comic crime caper set in Ireland that had two ordinary lead characters who got themselves caught up in extraordinary circumstances involving several, competing larger-than-life characters. Amongst my favorite writers at the time were Colin Bateman, Joe Lansdale, Carl Hiaasen, Laurence Shames, Lauren Henderson, Tim Dorsey and Janet Evanovich, and they influenced the type of book I wanted to create. Once I got the hook I needed to write the story to see how the puzzle was resolved.
OBAAT: How long did it take to write Stumped, start to finish?
RK: The first draft didn’t take too long; a few months. Since then it’s been through multiple revisions and edits, usually once every two or three years when I pulled it out of a virtual drawer, dusted it down and gave it another run through.
OBAAT: What’s the back story on the main character or characters?
RK: The two central characters are Mary and Grant. Mary lost her husband and her legs in a car accident and is raising her two young children while studying at the local university. Grant is a university lecturer who has recently arrived in Ireland from England and is still feeling a little out of place. The story starts with them tentatively agreeing to go on a date, but then fate intervenes and gives them the task of saving the life of Grant’s housemate, Sinead, who has been kidnapped by Dublin gangster seeking the return of a valuable package.
OBAAT: In what time and place is Stumped set? How important is the setting to the book as a whole?
RK: It’s set in the present day in Ireland, with a brief sojourn to Manchester in England. The setting was important to me. Fifteen years ago the whole Irish crime fiction boom had not yet begun, with only a handful of Irish writers having success in the genre, notably Colin Bateman (whose books were set in Northern Ireland) and John Connolly (whose books were set in the US). I wanted to read crime fiction set in the Republic and I wanted to read stories that challenged stereotypes about Irish society. A screwball noir set in Irish suburbia, but which travelled round Dublin and the Irish countryside allowed me to do that. I knew that getting any novel published would be a difficult, but soon discovered that my approach seemed to make it all but impossible. Every rejection letter I got started with the phrase ‘I really enjoyed reading this, but ...’. The ‘but’ was crime fiction set in Ireland has no established market, nationally or internationally. A few years later, when Irish crime fiction was on an upward trend, I was told that the problem was there was no established market for an Irish comic crime caper, or it was ‘too American’ in style for Irish fiction. A couple of US publishers did show interest in the book, but they felt the Irish setting was too parochial and wanted the story moved to the US, something that I wasn’t prepared to do.
OBAAT: How did Stumped come to be published?
RK: Kjetil Hestvedt at 280 Steps wrote to tell me about the company and the books it was publishing and to see whether I would be interested in reviewing any of them for the crime fiction blog I write (The View from the Blue House). He mentioned that he had enjoyed reading my last novel, Stiffed. We swapped a few emails and I ended up sending him drafts of two novels, one I’d recently finished and Stumped. He expressed an interest in publishing Stumped and I signed on the dotted line.
OBAAT: What kinds of stories do you like to read? Who are your favorite authors, in or out of that area?
RK: I’m an avid reader. Beyond the academic work I read for my day job as a university professor, I mostly read crime fiction and popular science and history. I generally read and review just over a hundred books a year, circa 90% of which are crime fiction. Of those, I tend to focus on police procedurals, hardboiled noirs, comic crime capers, espionage, and historical versions of those (I have a fondness for stories set between 1930-60). I tend to shy away from cozies, psychological and political thrillers, or tales with a supernatural bent. I always find it difficult to pick out favorite authors, preferring favorite books, but have soft spots for Joe Lansdale, Adrian McKinty, Gene Kerrigan, Philip Kerr, Carlo Lucarelli, Peter Temple, Terry Pratchett, and Duane Swierczyski.
OBAAT: Who are your greatest influences?
RK: I read so widely that I’m sure I pick up ideas from many different authors. The authors listed in the first and previous question have no doubt been important influences.
OBAAT: Do you outline or fly by the seat of you pants? Do you even wear pants when you write?
RK: I tend to outline about 20-30 pages in advance of the scene I’m presently writing.
OBAAT: Give us an idea of your process. Do you edit as you go? Throw anything into a first draft knowing the hard work is in the revisions? Something in between?
RK: I tend to edit as I go. I think writing is a recursive process that is made up of rounds of drafting and editing. With non-fiction I write in a very non-linear way and can be working on several chapters at once, gradually building up the structure and narrative. That’s very difficult to do with fiction as maintaining continuity becomes tricky.
OBAAT: If you could give a novice writer a single piece of advice, what would it be?
RK: It depends on what the ambition on the novice writer is. If it is to be really successful, write stuff that is similar, but slightly different, to what is popular in the market right now. If it is to be true to oneself then write the story as you feel it needs to be told and hope that the market comes round to your way of thinking.
OBAAT: Favorite activity when you’re not reading or writing.
RK: Walking the dogs.
OBAAT: Which do you take to bed at night, the money earned or the good review?
RK: The good review. Stumped is my 18th authored book between non-fiction and fiction genres and I’ve yet to make decent money from any of them, except indirectly through rapid promotion as an academic.
OBAAT: Would you stop writing if someone paid you enough money so you’d never have to work again, on the condition you could also never write again?
RK: No. I make my living from writing, either indirectly or directly, and I thoroughly enjoy doing it. If I was to never write again I think I’d be pretty miserable. Money without pleasure sounds worthless.
OBAAT: If you were just starting out, which would you prefer: 1. Form your own indie publishing house and put your work out in paper and e-book yourself? 2. Go with a small or medium traditional house that offers very little or no advance, a royalty that is only a fraction of what you'd get on your own, and also makes no promise of any type of publicity push, keeping in mind that you also will lose the publishing rights for a period, sometimes indefinitely? 3. Go with a Big Six or legacy publisher that offers a larger advance, legitimate review possibilities, entrance to industry literary awards, and exposure on the shelves of brick and mortar stores. Pick one and say why.
RK: Three. I think most people starting have hopes of hitting the big time and having their work read by as many people as possible and making a living from writing. Option 3 is the best for that. Over time, one changes perspective. I’ve done all three between non-fiction and fiction and they all have their pluses and minuses. The way you phrase Option 2 is really very negative and in my view, small and traditional houses have a lot to offer, including more attention on the author and the work as it’s not lost in a vast system. In many ways, they also have more vested in the book being a success.
OBAAT: Beer, mixed drinks, or hard liquor?
OBAAT: Baseball or football?
RK: I’ve always enjoyed attending baseball games more than football when visiting the US.
OBAAT: What question have you always wanted an interviewer to ask, but they never do?
RK: To be honest, I don’t really feel the need to unburden any nugget of knowledge or enlightening anecdote. I’m happy to just take whatever questions come, and if a question slightly misses the point, I’ll gladly steer it to be able to give some kind of reasonable answer.
OBAAT: What are you working on now?
RK: I’m editing two non-fiction books, both about how software is changing how cities are experienced and run. I’m hoping to get back to drafting a novel in the new year.