Thursday, March 3, 2016

9mm interview: William Shaw

Welcome to the latest edition of 9mm, our popular author interview series here on Crime Watch. For the month of March I will be highlighting some cool crime writers who I'm very pleased to be chairing on a panel as part of an upcoming crime festival, Deal Noir on 2 April.

After the welcome by Susan Moody, our 9.30am panel "There's A Time And A Place for Everything" will consist of Guy Fraser-Sampson, Daniel Pembrey, Linda Regan, and William Shaw, and will kick-start what will be a fabulous day. You can read more about Deal Noir here.

Today I'm very pleased to welcome William Shaw to Crime Watch. An award-winning music journalist, William broke into crime fiction with his acclaimed 'Breen and Tozer' trilogy set in late 1960s London, a time of political and cultural revolution. The New York Times praised the books as "an elegy for an entire alienated generation", and The Sunday Times chose the third in the series, A BOOK OF SCARS, as one of its books of the year in 2015.

This year, Shaw is releasing a standalone in May, THE BIRDWATCHER, which involves a Police Sergeant who is himself a murderer investigating a murder on the Kent coast. But for now, the former Observer columnist becomes the 140th author to stare down the barrel of 9mm.


1. Who is your favourite recurring crime fiction hero/detective?
Very old-school, I know, but Maigret. In Maigret Simenon created a brilliantly European riposte to American crime writing of the time, someone whose outlook was utterly different to the muscular male archetypes created by Chandler and Hammett. Maigret goes home for lunch! He cares about the food he eats and the drink he drinks. He took you into dark bars along the Seine. His wit is quiet and dark. It was a new type of noir, and the whole brilliiant, morose tradition of European crime up from Kurt Wallander and onwards rests on Maigret’s shoulders.

2. What was the very first book you remember reading and really loving, and why?
Down With Skool by Geoffrey Willans and Ronald Searle. At the age of seven I was sent to public boarding school, which was, frankly, horrible. Down With Skool’s improbable hero Nigel Molesworth lived in an eerily similar but entirely alternate universe, and managed to make what was dismal and grim sound like a gigantic, ridiculous joke. Which wasn’t a bad way of looking at it.

3. Before your debut crime novel, what else had you written (if anything): unpublished manuscripts, short stories, articles?
I wrote several non-fiction books including one called Westsiders, Stories of the Boys in the Hood, which was my attempt to understand where West Coast hip hop came from. I spent over a year hanging out with young men in South Central Los Angeles, which was a pretty life-changing experience for me. After that came a book called Superhero For Hire, which sold about six copies but which was a compilation of columns I’d written for The Observer. Back when classified adverts used to exist, before Gumtree, I used to call up people who placed classified adverts and ask them the stories behind them and then write odd columns about them. It taught me that all narrative is based on change, but sometimes the changes that look very small from the outside can actually be huge. You’d call up about someone selling a second hand book and get this immense, amazing life story from it.

4. Outside of writing, and touring and promotional commitments, what do you really like to do, leisure and activity-wise?
Very un-crime I know, but I play in a ceilidh band called Brighton Ceilidh Collective. We do gigs most weekends.  I’m a pretty ham-fisted player but playing music with other people is really good for the head.

5. What is one thing that visitors to your hometown should do, that isn't in the tourist brochures, or perhaps they wouldn’t initially consider?
When you come out of the station, don’t walk straight down the sea. Turn left and walk down Trafalgar Street. When you get to Sydney Street turn right and slow down. For the next hour, spent your time going into all the small shops and cafes there. That’s where the real Brighton is. The North Laine is full of absurd and unlikely bits of entrepreneurship. The shops change on an almost weekly basis. But all of Brighton is here, from Vegetarian Shoes to the Snooper’s Paradise flea market. Brighton Books is a great second hand bookshop too.

6. If your life was a movie, which actor could you see playing you?
Edward Norton, don’t you think, if he was a bit uglier?

7. Of your own books, which is your favourite, and why?
My favourite is The Birdwatcher, because it’s very complete. It’s a crime book set in modern Kent and 1970s Ulster. I realised when I finished it that I had written an almost complete circle; it ends back where it starts in a kind of way and I was really pleased with that.

8. What was your initial reaction, and how did you celebrate, when you were first accepted for publication? Or when you first saw your debut story in book form on a bookseller’s shelf?
I jumped onto a bicycle and rode up to the South Downs. There were two publishers bidding for my Breen and Tozer series and the price seemed to be going up by the hour. I was so giddy with energy I had to so something. I can remember getting off my bike at the top of the hill and having to check my phone to see whether the email from my agent was real or whether I’d just fantasised it.

9. What is the strangest or most unusual experience you have had at a book signing, author event, or literary festival?
Back when I did Westsiders I was invited to do the Galway Book Festival, Cuirt. My host was the man who has since become the godfather of modern Irish crime fiction, Ken Bruen. He was a wonderful and mischievous guide, and took me drinking in Galway town. We stayed up most of the night and, having discovered that my family were Protestants from Armagh, spent the evening pointing out the most virulent Republicans in the room and offering to introduce me. He’s a great man and when I sent him my first crime book was unbelievably generous about it.

Thank you William, we appreciate you taking the time to chat to Crime Watch

You can see William Shaw at Deal Noir on 2 April as part of the "There's A Time And Place For Everything" panel at the Landmark Centre at 9.30am. For more information on William Shaw, check out his author website here

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