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Tuesday 19 April 2022

Interview: Dot Marshall-Gent in conversation with Chris Blackwater


Chris Blackwater is a chartered engineer from Leeds.
He began writing to entertain himself while working away on offshore oil platforms, power stations and shipyards. His career has taken him all over the world to many unusual locations and introduced him to some remarkable characters.
His short stories have appeared in a variety of publications and anthologies.
In recent years Chris has gradually drifted down to the south coast of England where he now spends his spare time kayaking and sailing on the Solent.
debut novel Emergency Drill was short-listed for the
Crime Writers’ Association Debut Dagger Award in 2020. 

Dot: Hi Chris and thanks for agreeing to be interviewed for Mystery People.  Congratulations on the publication of Emergency Drill.  How did you come up with such an unusual setting for a murder thriller?
: I've spent a lot of time working on offshore oil platforms. I figured that not many other writers are likely to have that kind of first-hand experience. Unsurprisingly, it's an environment that attracts some interesting characters. I'm glad I've finally found a fitting way to tell their story.

Dot:   I want to move on to your characters next and look first at Danny Verity.  He’s a refreshingly self-deprecating detective with a wonderful, dry sense of humour.  Was this how you envisaged him when you began to write the novel or did he develop over time?
I decided that Danny should be a newly qualified medic who was unsure of his role. I wanted the reader to learn about offshore life through his experiences. Like others with dangerous jobs, oil workers often have a wicked sense of humour, so that was always going to be part of Danny's personality.  His character only really came to life when I had him talking to Gemma, Callum and the rest of the crew.

Dot:  Yes, and I thoroughly enjoyed spending time with all the characters in the novel, particularly Gemma.  Apart from Danny, which character did you most enjoy creating and why? 
: Gemma was certainly the most fun to write. She doesn't care what anyone thinks of her, and you would not want to get on the wrong side of her. She does have a caring side, but she doesn't often show it. I enjoyed bringing Mickey, the conspiracy theorist, into the story. There are plenty of eccentrics offshore and they seem to thrive better than they might in a regular workplace. 

Dot: I’m glad you mention the setting offshore, because the description of the sea, furious and unpredictable, runs like a thread through the novel.  Alongside the unknown killer, the sea becomes another character threatening the crew on the platform. Was this your intention?
: The sea and the wind dominate life offshore. I really didn't understand bad weather until I worked on an oil platform north of Shetland. The whole structure rocked every time a wave struck, and the spray reached the main deck fifty metres up. I felt very much at the mercy of the elements and I'm glad that comes across in the book.

Dot:  What research did you have to do for the novel and what aspects of the book challenged you most?
Chris: I was getting away with minimal research, until I needed to know about industrial sabotage. You will be pleased to know that the information is not readily available online! My main research headache was self-inflicted. I decided Danny ought to be a medic, despite the fact that I know very little about emergency medicine and I faint at the sight of blood. I can't say I enjoyed that part of the writing process, but I'm feeling much better now.

Dot: You certainly put Danny into some extraordinarily challenging situations on the Cuillin Alpha.  Were any of the events based on your own experiences?
: If I'd been through the same traumatic experiences as Danny, I would probably have retrained as an accountant. His helicopter ride out to the Cuillin Alpha is unpleasantly close to reality, as are the prevailing weather conditions offshore. The rest you can put down to an over-active imagination and too much time spent in the tea shack waiting for my permit-to-work.

Dot: Well, let’s get back on dry land again then!  Did you always want to become an author? And would you tell readers something about your background?
Chris: I grew up on a council estate on the outskirts of Leeds. I was an avid reader and was lucky enough to have a good local school with supportive teachers. My English teacher liked my stories but warned me that writers were poorly paid. My Physics teacher told me to avoid the sciences, or I'd end up working as a teacher. Instead, he thought I should go to university and study engineering. My parents were a bit bemused by the idea, but I followed his advice. I kept writing those stories though and even had quite a few published over the years.

Dot: What were the highs and lows on the way to Emergency Drill being published?
: The Debut Dagger shortlist email disappeared into my spam folder. When I finally looked at their website, the neighbours must have thought I'd won the lottery. That success encouraged me to submit Emergency Drill to numerous agents. I expected rejections, but I was really disappointed by how many never even replied. The response from independent publishers, was much more encouraging. Eventually, I was lucky enough to be offered a contract with Dark Edge Press. And now I can bask in the warm glow of having one of my own novels on the bookshelf. 

Dot: Well, having reviewed Emergency Drill, I’d say you deserve a spot of basking!  I’ve been told you are keen on sailing and kayaking, and wonder how else you like to spend your time when you aren’t writing?
Chris: I enjoy walking and cycling along the Solent coast or up to the South Downs. I volunteer at our local nature reserve where I'm engaged in a losing battle with several species of spiky shrub. In bad weather, I aggravate my wife's tinnitus by playing the flute very badly.

Dot:  Finally, Chris, you’ve just delivered a fast-paced, no punches pulled, novel.  What can we expect from you next?
 I've just sent my next novel, Dead Crude, off to Dark Edge Press. A security guard at an Orkney oil terminal goes missing and his family ask Danny to investigate. He infiltrates the terminal and becomes convinced that he has discovered an island-wide conspiracy. He needs help fast, which means persuading Gemma to spend her precious shore leave on a remote and windswept island. Finding a missing man and a murderer should by easy by comparison.

Dot: That’s a great title and I’m delighted that Danny and Gemma will team up again.  Meanwhile, Chris, thanks so much for taking the time for this interview and I really look forward to reading the new book when it comes out.

Dot Marshall-Gent worked in the emergency services for twenty years first as a police officer, then as a paramedic and finally as a fire control officer before graduating from King’s College, London as a teacher of English in her mid-forties.  She completed a M.A. in Special and Inclusive Education at the Institute of Education, London and now teaches part-time and writes mainly about educational issues.  Dot sings jazz and country music and plays guitar, banjo and piano as well as being addicted to reading mystery and crime fiction.  

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