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Wednesday 29 August 2018

William Shaw

Carol Westron talks with William Shaw

William Shaw is an award-winning music journalist and has written several non-fiction books.
 In 2013 he published
A Song From Dead Lips, the first in a series of books featuring Detective Sergeant Cathal Breen and Woman Police Constable Helen Tozer, the first woman to join the detective team. A Song From Dead Lips is set in October 1968 and the Breen and Tozer books have been described by the New York Times as “an elegy for an entire alienated generation.” As well as the four Breen and Tozer books, William has written two contemporary crime novels set in Dungeness, Kent, which have received critical praise from Val McDermid, Peter May, Barry Forshaw and C.J. Sansom.

Carol: Before you started writing novels, you had a successful and varied career as a journalist and had written several non-fiction books. When you turned to fiction, what was it about crime fiction that attracted you?
William: Part of it’s that we try to write the books that made us want to read books in the first place. I had that kind of bored childhood where I was left to my own devices for long hours, so I went through my parents’ green-backed Penguins. They loved Simeon, Len Deighton, Eric Ambler and in particular Nicholas Freeling. That mix of great writing and bruised heros… can’t beat it. Nicholas Freeling in particular. Love in Amsterdam and Guns Before Butter are brilliant but mostly forgotten today. They were so cosmopolitan and modern at a time when we still had pounds, shillings and pence.

Carol: Your Breen and Tozer novels are set in the final years of the 1960s. Why did you choose this decade to begin your series?
William: I’m friends with CJ Sansom and we’ve been part of a small writers’ group since 2000 – when he was working on the original manuscript for Dissolution. His career took off and I was still finding my feet. When I finally started writing something that I was confident about, I was thinking, I can’t write historical fiction, because that will be copying Chris. I had been writing about music and popular culture for many years and so I thought, is it possible to write a cultural novel rather than a historical one? And if you’re writing about changing culture, when would be a good time to write about? So, I thought what about that point in the 1960s, when what we regard as modern culture - music, feminism, multiculturalism and contemporary liberal values - were just starting to emerge from the post-war fog but were still doing battle with British values. So, I started to write at a point just after Enoch Powell’s Rivers of Blood speech…

Carol: In her keynote lecture at Captivating Criminality 5 Professor Mary Evans praised the way in which you characterise the ‘generation gap’ between Breen and Tozer by their different tastes in music. In what other ways do you use music to set the feeling of the period and characters in your books?
William: That’s lovely to hear. In 1968 there was a bizarre dividing line in our culture. If you were 30 or over, you dressed like you were middle-aged. By that age men had already been in a job for several years that they expected to last them their entire lives. The music you liked reflected a kind of sense of a big society. If you’d grown up in the 40s and 50s you typically liked big bands. You had done national service. You polished your shoes on Sundays. You had an idea of self-sacrifice drilled into you.  But if you were a teenager in the 1960s, you had a totally different outlook – much more individualistic. Some – mainly middle-class kids – were beginning to experiment with ideas of “self”, through drugs and spirituality. The music was about pop stars, and any self-respecting teenager knew lots of facts about the ones they idolised. Tozer knows everything about The Beatles. To her they represent colour, personality, freedom and escape from her dull life in rural Devon. Breen, middle-aged by his early thirties, is typical of men of that generation in that he simply doesn’t get what all the fuss is about. And though he’s clearly sensitive and artistic, he is critical and suspicious of the self-centredness of the new generation. So while Tozer’s a kind of proto-feminist, full of light and life, I like that he’s aware of the darker elements of the new culture. There’s also the emerging interest in soul and West Indian music running through there as young people in Britain start to look out to the wider world.

Carol: When you started the books, did you plan the way the relationship between Breen and Tozer would develop or did it occur as the books went on?
William: I knew who Breen was; mostly my dad. But Tozer totally invented herself. After starting as quite a bright, colourful character, she becomes quite dark at times and my editors had to warn me that she was becoming almost too snarky. That’s because I think she is a modern woman trapped in the late 60s - when the pill and contraception had been invented - but before feminism had built a head of steam. In some ways, it was a terrible time for women. They were expected to be sexy and sexually available, but they were also supposed to be at home bringing up the kids. While Breen is clever, he’s quite meek. What developed was that the much sharper Tozer gives him backbone because of that. 

Carol:                We’ve mentioned music but what other research did you do to get the ambience of the 1960s?
            Ooh. Being born a long time ago helped. I remember The Beatles coming to my town in Devon when they were filming Magical Mystery tour. It was hilarious. Devon was still in the 1950s at the time, so it was like the Martians had landed. But also, lots of reading and talking to people who were there at the time. When I wrote A House of Knives, for example, I wanted to know about attitudes to heroin in the late 1960s, so I called up the remarkable Caroline Coon who was one of the co-founders of Release. It was a charity which tried to help drug users with the law and addiction issues – and at the time there were so few people who really understood what was happening in terms of drug use. She was amazing and instrumental in helping me reimagine a world before we knew what heroin was going to do to society.

Sympathy For The Devil, the fourth Breen and Tozer book, set in 1969, describes the Rolling Stones concert that they dedicated to Brian Jones, who died shortly before the concert. This seems to me to be a very symbolic end to the decade, very skilfully used. Do you plan to continue the story of Breen and Tozer into the 1970s?
Thank you so much. I do plan to continue them. I would love to see them in the age of Bolan and Bowie. London was still a real epicentre of cultural change in that decade and at some point I’ll pick up the thread…

Carol: When reviewing
The Birdwatcher, C.J. Sansom said that your depiction of the Kent countryside near Dungeness was a ‘Superb description of a haunting, blighted landscape.’ I get the impression that in all your books setting is a fundamental ingredient. Is Kent an area that you were already familiar with when you were considering settings for The Birdwatcher?
Yes… in fact though I’d been there before, the last time I’d been was for the ash scattering of a friend, so there was something very emotional about the place already for me. When I was looking for a
deliberately rural location – to write something that was very different from the Breen and Tozer books – it struck me what a great but also very meaningful location it would be to use. There’s a socking great nuclear power station there so you’re not short of metaphors. And then I started thinking about what kind of person might live there… it’s an amazing place for migrating birds… I came up with the idea of William South, The Birdwatcher.  And it also struck me that people who are there are often people who want to be on their own, so that set me going on who he would be.

Carol: When it was published,
The Birdwatcher was described as a stand-alone novel. At what stage did you decide that DS Alexandra Cupidi required a ‘spin-off’ series of her own?
Cupidi was a really important character for me… though I gather that many people didn’t really like her in The Birdwatcher. But I really totally knew who she was from the start. If you read Salt Lane you’ll understand why. And I was thinking from about half way through writing The Birdwatcher… I really want to do something else with her. But I was terrified of using a woman as a central character because I hadn’t done it before. I remember telling Elly Griffiths and Lesley Thomson about this and they both urged me to go for it. They also made a wise suggestion – that if I could get the scenes where she talked to other women right I could make her a credible character.

Carol: What are you writing at the moment and when is it due to be published?

I’m just editing a book called Dungeness, which is the second Alexandra Cupidi book. It’s been one of the hardest I’ve ever had to write and I’m not sure why. It caused me sleepless nights to get right, but I’m really pleased with it now. It’s out in May 2019.
Carol: To finish off, could you tell us a little about yourself and your hobbies and interests?

William: I’ve been living in Brighton for the last 18 years with my wife and children. For ages, I was a music journalist and wrote for the nationals. In those days I wrote non-fiction books - such as Westsiders, which is about West Coast hip hop and about the very hard lives of young African American men growing up in South Central Los Angeles in the 1990s. Most weekends now I play mandolin and fiddle in a ceilidh band called Brighton Ceilidh Collective – which is a lot of fun. We played a ceilidh in Steyning the other day and Julia Donaldson was in the crowd, dancing – falling over mostly because she was wearing flip flops. Unlike writing, where you don’t see the results for months and months, and you don’t ever witness anybody else actually reading it, ceildh’s very immediate. It’s very gratifying watching people grinning like idiots as they stumble around.

DS Breen and WPC Tozer
A Song From Dead Lips (2013)
A House of Knives (2014)
A House of Scars (2015)
Sympathy for the Devil (2107)
DS Alexandra Cupidi
The Bird Watcher (2016)
Salt Lane (2018)

 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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