Sunday, February 9, 2014

Twenty Questions With Jay Stringer

I first encountered Jay Stringer on the Do Some Damage blog, where he is the regular Thursday correspondent. (I’m not sure who covers the irregular Thursdays.) I’d been a fan of Jay’s posts for quite a while, and panicked when I realized his new book, Lost City, had been released and I had yet to get around to Runaway Town. I read Runaway Town a couple of weeks ago; my enthusiastic reception can be read here.

Jay was born in Walsall, West Midlands, U.K. in 1980 and currently lives in Glasgow. He has worked in the usual variety of jobs that lead to becoming a writer, including zookeeper, bookseller, and self-professed call center lackey. His work is a mixture of urban crime, mystery, and social fiction, for which he coined the phrase “social pulp fiction.” He thinks he may have been a journalist in another life, but says people tell you more secrets if you talk to them as a crime writer. Jay is dyslexic, and comes to the printed word as a second language. One day he hopes to master it. But he also likes to call himself Chief and El Jefe, so make of that what you will.

His first novel, Old Gold, was released by Thomas & Mercer in 2012; the follow-up, Runaway Town, was released in 2013. The third book in the Eoin Miller trilogy, Lost City, launched last month.

It’s been a mid-winter treat to become more familiar with Jay and his work, and I’m delighted he took the time to play Twenty Questions.

One Bite at a Time: Tell us about Lost City.

Jay Stringer: Lost City is the third book in the Eoin Miller trilogy. It starts out as a murder mystery being investigated from the other side—by the criminals—but it soon turns into a mess of corruption, violence and abuses of power.

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.)

JS: As the final book of the trilogy, quite a lot of the story was already decided by the time I sat down to write. There were ideas and secrets I’d been playing with for two books already, and I had to finally answer all of the questions. Well, most of them. I’d spent the second book—Runaway Town—messing with Miller’s moral compass and leaving him a very confused place. For Lost City I needed to see what that would do to him a couple of years down the line, and also see if he could come back from it. Then you spice the story with whatever you’re picking up from the world around you: newspapers, conversations, arguments.

OBAAT: How long did it take to write Lost City, start to finish?

JS: It was done in two drafts before we sent it to the publisher, then one copy edit. About ten months once it’s all added up.

OBAAT: What’s the back story on the main character or characters?

JS: It’s called the ‘Eoin Miller Trilogy’ but really it has three protagonists. It’s just that one of them gets to narrate it. Eoin Miller is a confused man in his thirties. He’s half Romanichal—the English Roma—and he’s never really figured out who he is. He tried being a cop to rebel against his family, but now he works for the other side, as a gangland detective. Veronica Gaines is Miller’s criminal boss. She’s been trying to go straight, but her family roots keep pulling her back. Laura Miller is Eoin’s ex-wife. She’s a corrupt cop. She comes from a more settled home than either Eoin or Veronica, but in some ways that seems to make her more dangerous, because she’s trying to be something, whereas they’re trying not to be something.

OBAAT: In what time and place is Lost City set? How important is the setting to the book as a whole?

JS: If you follow the timeline from Old Gold through to Lost City, it works out that the third book is actually set in 2015. Maybe I should have pitched it as a sci-fi novel. The setting is crucial, it’s pretty much what the whole series is about. I grew up in the Black Country, an area in the English Midlands that took its name from industry. It was said to be “black by day and red by night.” Coal mining, foundries, factories, engineering, car manufacture. Think of it as a hybrid between Detroit and the version of Harlan County depicted in Justified. Then one day it all went away. One in three children in the area is living in poverty now, and that’s only going to get worse. The Miller books are both love and hate letters to my hometown, and each of the main characters embodies the region in some way.

OBAAT: How did Lost City come to be published?

JS: It was the final book of the three-book deal we got from Thomas & Mercer. They’ve been great and very supportive of what I wanted to do with the series. When we were first shopping Old Gold around, we ran into difficulties because it was a book set in an unfashionable part of England, that starred an ethnic minority character and didn’t have any car chases or explosions. But T&M took a chance on it, and now I have three books out, I’m suspecting I should start calling this a career soon.

OBAAT: What kinds of stories do you like to read? Who are your favorite authors, in or out of that area?

JS: I like to read social fiction. Stories with a bit of heart and meat. I’ll read anything by George Pelecanos or Ray Banks. Johnny Shaw’s Big Maria blew me away recently, it’s sort of an adult version of The Goonies run through a noir filter. Steve Weddle proved us all right last year with the amazing Country Hardball, a book full of real voices and their small victories and defeats. Eva Dolan is someone worth checking out. She’s just released her debut, Long Way Home, which looks at immigration.

OBAAT: Who are your greatest influences?

JS: My biggest influences come from other fields. I love stand-up comedians like George Carlin and Mark Thomas, and I’m always learning new things from the work of Alan Moore. I like Paul Westerberg, Bruce Springsteen and Tom Waits, and the plays of Sean O’Casey. It’s a list full of white males, which I’m very uncomfortable about, but it’s an honest list.

OBAAT: Do you outline or fly by the seat of your pants? Do you even wear pants when you write?

JS: Pants and trousers. I’m a Brit. I don’t outline, but I write to a three act structure and I usually have the final scene in my head when I start, so I know where I’m going.

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?

JS: I think a lot. I trust my brain. If it’s not coming, I’ll go for a walk or take a shower, and wait until I absolutely have to write it down. At the start of each session I loosen up by rewriting the previous day’s work. That’s a way of easing into the work but it also means I’m constantly editing, and one draft from me is really the equivalent of three or four.

OBAAT: If you could give a novice writer a single piece of advice, what would it be?

JS: Finish what you start. Then start again.

OBAAT: Favorite activity when you’re not reading or writing.

JS: Thinking about sleeping. And listening to The Replacements.

OBAAT: Which do you take to bed at night, the money earned or the good review?

JS: The review. Though the money pays for the bed. A writer always like to hear about someone enjoying the work.

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?

JS: Nope, because I’d die of boredom.

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.

JS: I think what matters more are the relationships. Who are you going to be working with? What kind of support network do you have? Whether you’re forming your own publishing house named after your favorite kind of fish, or going to an established publisher, you need to know that you’re working with people who will support you and fight for your book to succeed. There’s also the consideration of what you’re doing with your time. If you have a full-time job, then you’re probably better suited having a publisher who can do a lot of the business work for you. If you don’t have a day job, then you’ll have more time to devote to publishing.

OBAAT: Beer, mixed drinks, or hard liquor?

JS: Bourbon. Lots of it.

OBAAT: Baseball or football?

JS: Football. Real football. The football played by the mighty Wolverhampton Wanderers.

OBAAT: What question have you always wanted an interviewer to ask, but they never do?

JS: Which is you least favorite toe?

OBAAT: What’s the answer?

JS: Probably one on my left foot. The third one, I think.

OBAAT: What are you working on now?

JS: I’ve been living in Glasgow for seven years, and I’ve just finished a book set there, we’re readying that for submission now. I’ve started another book set in the Midlands, sort of a modern Robin Hood tale, but it’s very early in the process so things could change.

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