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Thursday 24 January 2019

M W Craven

Dea Parkin talks with Mike Craven 

M. W. Craven was born in Carlisle but grew up in Newcastle.
He joined the army at sixteen, leaving ten years later to complete a social work degree.
Seventeen years after taking up a probation officer role in Cumbria, at the rank of assistant chief officer, he became a full-time author.
The Puppet Show, the first in a two-book deal he signed with the Little Brown imprint, Constable in 2017, was released in hardback in June 2018.

Dea: You used to be a soldier and then a probation officer. How did you get your big break as an author?
Mike: I’ve had two breaks really. The first was when I met the chief executive of Caffeine Nights at Crime & Publishment, at an annual crime writing conference in Gretna, in 2014. I’d just been shortlisted for the CWA Debut Dagger and he offered me a contract for my first novel – Born in a Burial Gown. My second, and arguably more important break, was when I met my agent in 2015 (again at Crime & Publishment). I gave him a copy of Born in a Burial Gown and he asked to see the next thing I wrote. He signed me on the strength of Body Breaker – which we sold to Caffeine Nights – but asked me to write a new series. Washington Poe was born, and he was able to sell it to Little, Brown.

Dea: Given that your previous lives must have been very routine-based, with set things to be done every hour, how have you adapted to a more self-prescribed life as an author? And are you able to write full-time or do you still have employment elsewhere?
Mike: I left probation in 2015 to become a full-time author and have managed to remain fairly disciplined. When I’m writing I stick to a semblance of a routine: walk the dog, breakfast then write until about 1pm, lunch, and then write until the words start to blur – usually around 6pm. That accounts for about 6 months of the year. The rest is spent working with my editor, line editor and copy editor to make sure it’s as good as it can be. I also have festival, bookshop, and publicity commitments throughout the year.

Dea: The North Cumbria region is obviously very important to you. Tell us a little about living there now, and how important the region itself is in your daily life.
Mike: I live in Carlisle, which is about as far north as you can get – five miles and I’m in Scotland. It’s a city that has constantly changed hands throughout history and this gives it a strange sort of vibe – not unlike that found in port towns. North Cumbria has a mixed history – from Hadrian’s Wall and the large Roman settlements, to medieval castles to the Border Reivers to the prehistoric sites featured in The Puppet Show. Cumbria isn’t all about the honeypots – Keswick, Grasmere, Windermere – there are parts, equally wild and beautiful, far off the beaten track, and it’s these I like to explore when I write. Obviously, I can’t ignore the world famous places, but I’m keen to show that there’s more to Cumbria than Beatrix Potter and Kendal Mint Cake . . .

Dea: Stone circles feature prominently in The Puppet Show. Do ancient history and pagan practices interest you?
Mike: Stone circles do fascinate me. There are 63 in Cumbria, more than any other county in the UK, and academics the world over are still unsure what their purpose was. In fact, until the events detailed in The Puppet Show, the only thing they tended to agree on was that they have never been used for ritual sacrifice. They’re a window into the life of the Neolithic man and woman: their beliefs, how they lived their lives. Most periods of history were recorded via primitive language and writing, but all that remains of the Neolithic period are their monuments. That I can travel ten minutes from my house and sit on the same rock on which a Neolithic stonemason carved some primitive markings is astonishing to me. It gives me goosebumps.

Dea: Tilly Bradshaw is a very unusual and engaging character in The Puppet Show, with her social ineptitude making her stand out. Have you met someone like Tilly in real life?
Mike: Tilly came about by accident. I’d been searching for a name for my protagonist, and when my wife misheard me say The Washington Post – “What’s the Washington Poe?” – Washington Poe came into existence, and I knew I’d need to explain his name. When I eventually figured it out, it changed who he was as a character and he became far darker than I’d imagined. To counterbalance this, I had to make Tilly – originally written as a much more streetwise character – a lot lighter. As to have I met anyone like her – I don’t think anyone has. I’ve taken bits of her character from people I’ve met, people I’ve seen on TV, and people I’ve read about. Ultimately though she is who she is: a once-in-a-generation mind but, because she’s been sheltered from the real world for most of her life, she has zero social skills. Unique, engaging and easily my most popular character, having her so much brighter than Poe allows me to explain things to the reader – via her explaining things to Poe – without patronising them. I think their ‘odd couple’ friendship puts a fresh take on the police procedural.

Dea:      In fact there are several wonderful characters in The Puppet Show … including Edgar the dog. Do you have a dog? How does s/he add to your life?
Mike: I do have a dog and he’s the same breed as Edgar: an English Springer Spaniel. Other than my time in the army I’ve always had a dog and it’s always been an ESS. They are so much fun to be around and each one has a massive personality. They take some walking, mind. Luckily, I live in Cumbria . . .

Dea: And above all Washington Poe, your hero. I wondered about your inspiration for this larger-than-life and very determined character? I’d always want him on my side!
Mike: To pinch a principle from Star Trek, Poe’s ‘Prime Directive’ is that justice has to be done. Although he can’t abide bullies, and occasionally overreacts when he meets them (particularly if Tilly is the victim), the thing that guides him is his strong moral compass. It allows him to do the things others won’t, to make the decisions others can’t and to keep going when others have stopped. He’s also rude and grumpy and a bit of a misanthrope. There are a couple of literary police officers I’ve drawn inspiration from – Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch and Terry Pratchett’s Sam Vimes in particular – but like most of my characters, he evolves and reacts to the situations I put him in. And sometimes I can be quite cruel. The third Washington Poe book, The Curator, begins with Tilly having dragged Poe to a baby shower . . .

Dea: I have to ask too about the political background to The Puppet Show in terms of the Serious Crime Analysis section, a department within the National Crime Agency, that hero Washington Poe has been working for. You create a very credible context, including the interplay with the CID and various police departments.  Is the Serious Crime Analysis section real, and do you have personal experience of working for them or the NCA? If not, how did you approach the research?
Mike: SCAS is real although I’ve taken massive liberties with the unit. Their brief is to identify emerging serial murderers and serial rapists and to assist with apparently motiveless murders. I’ve no experience of working with the NCA and purposefully avoided contacting them. One of the drawbacks, I felt, with my previous series – The DI Avison Fluke series – was that I knew too much about procedure. It meant in the back of my mind there was always a little voice telling me that what I was writing wasn’t how it was done. When Fluke and his small team investigate it can seem like I’m writing a large cast of characters, but the reality is that in Cumbria, a quarter of the force could be working on a murder – that’s 250 warranted police officers. Obviously, this would be too unwieldy to write so when my agent asked me to come up with a new series, I decided to have a team that worked with the main investigation team but wasn’t part of the main investigation team. This allowed me to have Poe and Tilly, quite credibly, doing their own thing. Poe has occasional interactions with the main team, so I can mention what they're up to, but this series isn’t a police procedural in the standard sense.

Dea: Your books have to be described as page-turners – certainly I couldn’t put your novels down. And they also expose fresh layers of complexity as they move along – the settings and situations explored could not be described as simple. How did you come to write this way – learnt in writing classes, absorbed from authors you admire or comes naturally?
Mike: A little of everything, I guess. I’ve attended workshops and I doubt there’s a writer alive who hasn’t been influenced by at least one of their heroes. Ultimately though, there are two bits of advice I picked up and I stick to them rigidly: cut the parts I’d skip if I were reading it, and write what I enjoy reading, rather than what I know. I prefer the 3rd person limited point of view – the same POV Michael Connelly uses, and J. K. Rowling used, to great effect – as I like the reader to discover things at the same time as Poe. Sometimes I’ll purposefully drop things in that the reader should get before him. I suppose my greatest tool is the one thing that can’t be taught: I have a vivid imagination. My mind basically never stops. Great when you’re a fiction writer, not so great when it comes to getting a restful night’s sleep . . .

Dea: In case it’s not answered above, who are the authors you admire, and why?
Mike: My favourite authors are Mick Herron (Jackson Lamb is a stunning creation – foul but utterly hilarious), Michael Connelly (Bosch is the detective I’d want investigating my murder), Carl Hiaasen (funny with a social conscience) and Terry Pratchett (Sam Vimes is the cop I’d want to work for).

Dea: I also enjoyed The Puppet Show because while it is very much a crime story, it reaches beyond that to highlight aspects of our society and the damage people can cause. How do you source your material?
Mike: I’m a qualified social worker and worked in probation – from probation officer to assistant chief officer – for 16 years. Before that I was in the army for 12 years. All writers are sponges but I’ve been able to take something from every job, every experience I’ve had. Sometimes it’s the smallest thing that sets me off on a novel – a word, a phrase, a headline – sometimes I go back to decades-old random thoughts, tucked away in dusty notebooks, opened and allowed to see some light. And, because I was a probation officer I suspect, I always want to know why someone does something. If someone is collecting noses in a M. W. Craven book, there’ll be a damn good reasonof why he’s doing it. The Nose Collector, now there’s a thought . . .

Dea:      Above all,
The Puppet Show goes beyond the who and the how to show the why – and you don’t shy away from questions of ethics and morality. For me, this is what elevates crime books and makes certain authors such as yourself well worth reading. When is your next novel due out, and what’s it about? 

Mike:    Black Summer is out in hardback on 20 June 2019. Poe finds himself on the wrong end of an investigation when a woman staggers into a remote Cumbrian police station with irrefutable proof she’s Elizabeth Keaton, a woman believed to have been murdered by her father, celebrity chef, Jared Keaton. Jared has been in prison for six years, convicted largely on the testimony of Poe. With the net closing in around him, Poe turns to the only person he trusts, Tilly Bradshaw, and together they try to answer the only question that matters: how can someone be both alive and dead at the same time? 


Detective Washington Poe
The Puppet Show (2018)

Dea Parkin is an editor with her consultancy Fiction Feedback and is also Secretary of the Crime Writers’ Association. She writes poetry and occasionally re-engages with The Novel. When she isn't editing, managing or writing she is usually to be found on the tennis court – or following the international tour at home on TV. Usually with several books on the go, she entertains a penchant for crime fiction, history, and novels with a mystical edge. She is engaged in a continual struggle to find space for bookshelves and time for her friends and her cat.

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