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Sunday 1 April 2018

Jeff Dowson

Carol Westron talks with Jeff Dowson

Jeff Dowson has enjoyed a career in theatre and film as a director and producer but always at the heart of his work he has been a writer –
a scriptwriter and screenwriter and a crime fiction writer.
All of Jeff’s books are set in Bristol. He is writing two series, the first three novels are set in the 21
st century and feature Private Investigator, Jack Shepherd, while Jeff’s new series features Ed Grover, an American GI who, in seeking to repay a wartime kindness, finds himself investigating murder and fighting for justice in a city broken by the horrors and deprivation of war.
Carol: You have had a remarkably diverse and interesting career in the entertainment industry. How did you get into writing and directing for the theatre in the first place?
Jeff:   It was ridiculously easy.  I got lucky.  After leaving university I wrote to a theatre director I’d met when I was a student.  He offered me a job – actually as a sound designer.  From there I moved to another couple of
repertory theatres, working in stage management.  I began directing plays then turned back to writing.  And if you become artistic director of a theatre company and you’re young and full of confidence, you get to direct your own plays.  Which is what I did.

Carol: Some writers have known since early childhood that they wanted to be writers. Was it like that for you or did you have other ambitions when you were at school?
Jeff: I wrote stories and primitive 5 minute plays at primary school.  And was supported by teachers when doing it. Later, I went to a minor public school which was led by a classics prof, so although I wrote stories I didn’t do any drama at school. But a really enlightened English teacher ordered me to go to the theatre at least every two weeks.  So, I did and saw a hell of a lot of plays – at that time the RSC had a 3-month residence every year at the Theatre Royal in Newcastle and I was never out of the place. And the local Education Authority spent money creating youth experimental drama groups run by a handful of brilliant drama teachers – can you imagine that happening these days?  And subsequently at Bretton Hall (the amazing Leeds University Drama Dept.) I just remember writing round the clock and getting my plays produced.

Carol: What decided you to move into television after working in the theatre?
Jeff: I directed the theatre premiere of Pete Townshend’s rock opera “Tommy”. Hugely satisfying but immensely complicated. And somehow that felt like the pinnacle of my theatre career. I’d always loved being in cinemas and I became absorbed by the idea of being able to combine acting, music, pictures, movement, studios and locations.  So… Again, I got lucky.  A TV director who had guest produced at the theatre I was working in a couple of years earlier, introduced me to the drama department at Granada Television.

Carol: I know very little about script writing for the theatre or screen-writing. What are the different skill sets involved?
Jeff: Actually, the skill-sets merge much more than they used to – thanks to the advent of studio theatres and live multi-tasking technology.  But the basic difference is still there.  For the theatre you write in words and
sentences.  For the screen you write in pictures and moments.  And you have at your disposal BIG close ups, in which you can see your characters thinking. Just take a look at Douglas Henshall playing Jimmy Perez and watch him thinking… Terrific.

Carol: You have recently co-written a comedy drama road movie, ‘The Return of Winter and Spring.’ Co-writing is very different to writing solo, so how did you go about it? I’ve heard talks by novel writing double acts who say they get together and work their way through the book and others who each write different chapters – or in your case scenes. How do you and your co-writer go about it?
Jeff: I write a lot with a fine screenwriter/producer called Phil Rowlands (also a crime novelist). At the point at which one of us has an idea, we get together for however long it takes, to thrash out a synopsis. Then one of us writes the first draft alone, and hands it over to the other to re–draft. That’s when the structure begins to change, and the story gets tighter and leaner.  The script then passes back and forth between us until we’re happy with it.  This is especially fun when you’re writing comedy, because one joke sparks another, comedic moments develop and get better.

Carol: When you started to write your first crime novel, Closing the Distance, I presume it was another new creative experience. Did you find it liberating or frightening to realise it was just you and your characters?
Jeff: It was the first lonely thing I had done. Plays and films are collaborative efforts – sometimes evolving.

What was liberating with Closing the Distance was discovering the joy of writing sentences again. And there I was, channelling Elmore Leonard, until my agent said, “Why is Jack Shepherd doing that?” “It’s obvious”  I said.“No, it isn’t” she said. I realised I was making transitions between sequences, visualising them in my head, but not getting them down onto the page.  That problem took some serious work to solve. I’m over it now.  The stuff is still lean and fast paced, but it’s much improved. 

Carol: When it comes to novels, are you a writer who plots it all out beforehand or do you start off and see where the story takes you?
Jeff: I get asked this a lot, but it’s still a great question.  I don’t write ‘whodunits’ – in the traditional sense. I don’t lay down plot lines, introduce a bunch of suspects and red herrings, although I do my best to create a surprise ending. So, I don’t plot beforehand at all. Although when I begin, I do have some idea about who is doing what and why. I start by deciding on something I want to write about. In Closing the Distance I began with two ideas I wanted to explore – transgender and dog fighting.  Somewhere along the line, two Serb gangsters, brutal sadists from Kosovo, arrived in the book.  And in the end, the story became about the Kosovan War.

Carol: I admire the character of your PI protagonist, Jack Shepherd. He’s tough and smart but he is also fundamentally decent with strong principles and I find him totally believable. What research did you do regarding the work of contemporary Private Investigators to help you achieve such a well-rounded character?
Jeff: Jack Shepherd is a Bristolian, but he’s based on bits of all the American PIs I’ve read and watched down the years… Philip Marlowe, Lew Archer, Spenser and my all-time favourite, Jim Rockford – a brilliantly rounded, tough, smart, knowing character with a wry sense of humour, created by the great James Garner and written by another of my heroes Stephen J Cannell.

Carol: When you started another series, you chose to move back to the 1950s and have an American GI as your protagonist. What inspired you to make these choices?
Jeff: I decided I wanted to write in the 3rd person (Jack Shepherd belongs to a first person tradition where the reader learns no more than the lead character discovers) and I wanted to sprawl a bit. Use a different writing style altogether.  I looked around for an historical setting that would give me lots of scope.  An American who is in England with the Eagle Squadron long before the US enters the war, who transfers to the infantry before D Day, battles his way across Europe from Omaha Beach, spends another 4 years in West Berlin trying to win the peace before being sent home – this is rich in material. Ed Grover ends up in Bristol visiting a family he knows, and from there the front story begins. The early 1950s is a rich vein to mine - the recovery from a world war, rationing, the black market, extortion, corruption, racism, the terrors of being homosexual, capital punishment, the infamous underworld of 1950s club land, the growth of organised crime… the material just keeps on giving.

Carol: One thing remains constant in your novels, the city that the action occurs in is the same. Why is Bristol your first choice for a setting?
Jeff: I was born in Blaydon on Tyne, lived in the North-east until I went university, then moved to Bristol at the close of the 1970s. I’ve lived here ever since. Like Jack Shepherd I know the place.  I want the city to be another character in the stories – like Edinburgh is to Rebus, Northumberland is to Vera, Shetland is to Jimmy Perez, LA is to Jim Rockford. I hope I’m doing that successfully.

Carol: I understand you are developing a feature film about Chopin and writing two novels, Jack Shepherd number 4 and Ed Grover number 2. How is all that going?
Jeff: I’m a third of the way through Jack Shepherd 4 (although I still have no idea how it ends). I know what to write about in Grover 2.  The movie which I have scripted, is a project long in gestation. It is now almost fully financed, and scheduled for shooting in Belgium, Mallorca and here in England. I’m not at liberty to tell you any more than that.

Carol: Tell us a bit about yourself and your hobbies.
Jeff: I had a train set for years. It’s now in boxes on top of the wardrobe in the spare bedroom.  My brother has one which he’s re-building in his new house. I think I’m going to pass my stuff on to him. I follow the sports I use to play at school and university (rugby, football, track and field athletics). And motor sport, particularly F1 (I did a bit of kart racing back in the day). I like making things in wood – though that’s lapsed a little over the past few years. We have our own BFI Neighbourhood Cinema in the village supported by the National Lottery, which I help to run.  Way back in my teenage days I had an ambition to run my own cinema – and here I am finally doing it.

Jack Shepherd Mysteries
Closing the Distance

Ed Glover Mysteries
One Fight At a Time

Carol Westron is a successful short story writer and a Creative Writing teacher.  She is the moderator for the cosy/historical crime panel,
The Deadly Dames. 
Her crime novels are set both in contemporary and Victorian times. 
The Terminal Velocity of Cats the first in her Scene of Crimes novels, was published July 2013. Carol recently gave an interview to Mystery People. To read the interview click on the link below.

To read a review of Carol latest book Strangers and Angels click on the title.

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