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Crime authors spill their guts about writing...

This week: William Shaw

Tell us about yourself.

William Shaw is interviewed by Barbara Copperthwaite

I'm the author of several non-fiction books including Westsiders: Stories of the Boys in the Hood, about a year spent with the young men of South Central Los Angeles, and A Superhero For Hire, a compilation of columns in the Observer Magazine.

A Song from Dead Lips is the first in a trilogy of crime fiction books set in London in 1968 - 1969. It is followed by A House of Knives, set in the weeks following A Song From Dead Lips. 

Starting out as assistant editor of the post-punk

magazine ZigZag, I have been a journalist for The Observer, The New York Times, Wired, Arena and The Face and was Amazon UK Music Journalist of the Year in 2003.

A very senior agent once advised me to stop trying to write fiction. I was a moderately successful non-fiction writer and journalist at the time and he’d just told me that he wouldn’t be able to find anyone to publish what I’d just handed him. I still know him, and he’s a lovely and very clever bloke and the advice was very well meant. To be fair to him, the books I’d sent him weren’t very good at all. I was, however, unable to stop and my first book, A Song From Dead Lips came out in 2013.

How do you pick character names? Do any have special meaning for you?

Mostly I pick them from random searches or from the spines of books. People I don’t know who try to befriend me on Facebook sometimes too. But in The Birdwatcher one name’s special. As a boy growing up in Northern Ireland, my hero’s name was Billy McGowan. My dad was from the North, from a Protestant family, and McGowan is a family name. Anyone growing up in the North of Ireland would know that William, or Billy, is a name loaded with meaning. For better or worse, Good King Billy remains an icon for Unionists. I wanted to convey that sense of a very partisan culture you have there, out of which this boy had grown. He later hides his Northern Ireland origins, behind another identity, William South. North and South, see? It’s more important for me to know that, than the reader, though!

A Song From Dead Lips, William Shaw

Do you ever get writer's block? How do you tackle it?

Writing can become really difficult sometimes when things just aren’t working but I’m from the insensitive school of thought that believes you just have to write through it, even if you’re writing crap. And sometimes there are gems in the crap. That’s a fairly unpleasant metaphor, but you know what I mean.

Research: do you find it fascinating or laborious? How do you conduct your research?

I love research. It’s great to have a license to call experts up and ask them questions. I’m a write-first-and-research-later writer so it’s sometimes tricky. In The Birdwatcher I was writing about birds and birdwatchers, obviously; not something I know a great deal about. So I put an early draft out there to about a dozen birdwatchers who really kindly read it, including some pretty senior people in the birding community. It was the kind of area where you can’t afford to get anything wrong. You could

destroy the credibility of the book with a single inaccurate detail. The readers were brilliant, coming back with all sorts of suggestions. They really got into it.

How easy/hard was it to get your first break?

It was a long time coming. I’ve been in publishing a long time, writing non-fiction books, but fiction was always my passion. So I had the connections, and some great help within publishing, but I’ll be honest; what I wrote for years just wasn’t good enough. I sent stuff off to my agent, but I wasn’t convinced about it myself. It took me a long time to understand how to write novels. I remember about a quarter of the way through A Song From Dead Lips, my first published novel, the bulb came on. Right. I’ve got it now. Finally. I know what I’m doing.

What's the best writing tip yopu've ever been given? How has it influenced you?

I don’t think I was ever given this tip. I just learned it because I was a jobbing journalist. You have to write all the time. It’s a muscle and it slows up if you don’t use it. And if you write every day, the odds are much increased that you’ll write something good. Even if 80% of what you write is rubbish, don’t angst. Leave it till later to decide what’s good and what isn’t.

What/who are your writing influences? Has this changed over your writing career?

Simeon and Nicholas Freeling, because they really defined European crime writing for me, which is as much about atmosphere and place as it is about blood and gore. The short story writers like Carver, Hemmingway and Chekhov, because the best short story writers are all about economy and economy is a key to crime fiction, I think. But also all those people like AM Homes and Nicola Barker who can take you to weird places within a couple of paragraphs.

A House of Knives, William Shaw

How much do your own life experiences appear in your writing?

Loads, but that’s because I was a journalist and got to see a lot of stuff that it’s easy to fictionalise. Like, I spent over a year in South Central Los Angeles writing about young men who were involved in a lot of violence - usually through no fault of their own. It gave a perspective on murder and the devastating effects it creates in survivors. And I used to do a column in The Observer called the Small Ads where I phoned up people who’d placed classified ads and asked them about the stories behind their adverts. That gave a lifetime’s worth of eccentric minor characters. Like the handcuff collector who appears briefly in A Song From Dead Lips.

The Birdwatcher, William Shaw

Which scene in your latest book did you most enjoy writing, and why?

Because I never write to a plan, I sometimes find myself writing things and I have no idea why they’re included. It’s ok. You can cull them if they don’t work. But sometimes they do in ways that surprise yourself. The penultimate scene in The Birdwatcher, a scene by a hospital bed, was one of those where you write and your jaw drops because you suddenly get the reason why you’ve written all this odd stuff. It all slotted together like some sort of magic puzzle and it was so exciting to see it happening. I was writing in a shack I have and I had to go and run around the garden to calm myself down.

Which book or character are you most proud of creating?

It has to be The Birdwatcher for that reason above. I’ve never written anything where the theme and the plot fit together in such a satisfying way - for myself at least. I’m very proud of it as a book.

Describe your current work in progress in five words...

Next Breen and Tozer book!

To find out more about William Shaw...



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