‘It’s the ‘normal’ people that do a lot of damage,’ – crime authors Jo Spain and William Shaw on writing, prologues and why serial killers aren’t scary

Crime writers Jo Spain and William Shaw are on the road together. In five days, they’ll do six events; talks in the evening, signings in libraries, conversations at book clubs. 

‘When they asked who I’d like to tour with, I told them I wanted someone that was a laugh,’ Spain says. ‘They sent me William.’ 

Spain is from Dublin, Shaw from Brighton. When we meet at The Collection Museum in Lincoln, where they will later be giving a talk, I explain I’m local, that I try to interview any interesting guest speakers. 

‘Great,’ says Spain. ‘Are they coming later?’ 

They’re friendly, funny, happy to talk for slightly longer than the ten minutes I’m allowed. It’s clear, however, that when it comes to writing, neither of them mess about. Both worked in the world of writing before becoming full-time fiction writers – Shaw was a journalist, Spain wrote political speeches. Now, Shaw usually writes a book a year, though at the moment he’s writing two; one in the morning, one in the afternoon. The following day, he swaps them over. 

Spain writes two novels a year and several successful screenplays. ‘I write all day, every day,’ she says. ‘When you meet people that want to be writers and they ask you how much you need to write every day, I always say there is no prescription. You should write – you should put words on the page. If you decide to write professionally, some people manage on a book a year. You can manage that with four or five hours a day. I’m writing twelve hours a day. It’s a full-time job, but I like it so it doesn’t feel like work.’ 

‘It’s like what Ian Rankin says when he hears about a literary person taking five years to write a book,’ says Shaw. ‘What did you do with the time?’ 

This no-nonsense attitude to inspiration, to drafts and deadlines, seems to be a Crime Fiction thing. Early last year, I interviewed crime writer Chris Brookmyre who told me he took eight weeks off from his day job to write his first novel Quite Ugly One Morning. He managed to finish it in seven. 

‘Yeah, I like to do a four-to-five-week draft, leave it and then come back to it,’ says Spain. ‘Once it’s on the page it’s like a painting you can fix. It might take me six months after a quick, four-week draft but then that gets carried as ‘You can write a book in four weeks.’ I mean, you can but you wouldn’t release it!’ 

‘The nice thing is to discover that everyone does it differently,’ says Shaw. ‘The thing that matters is that you produce work that you’re proud of. You find the rhythm that works for you.’ 

Shaw and Spain both appear to have found their rhythm. Spain was thirty-four and expecting her fourth child when she wrote her first Inspector Tom Reynolds novel. Her husband had just been made redundant and there were mouths to feed, bills to pay. 

‘I should probably make it clear,’ Spain says. ‘I would not recommend writing a novel as a way to solve financial problems.’ 

And yet it worked – the novel was shortlisted for the Richard and Judy ‘Search for a Bestseller’ prize and, though it did not win, the publicity was invaluable. Spain walked away with an agent, a book deal, a future for her family. 

‘Yeah, just so you know,’ Shaw chips in, ‘that NEVER happens!’ 

Before becoming a full-time crime writer, Shaw was a music journalist and author of several non-fiction books. One of these, Westsiders: Stories of the Boys in the Hood, includes meetings with young, pre-fame rappers Eminem and Tupac, among others.  He’s written for The ObserverThe New York Times and Wired; he was Amazon UK Music Journalist of the Year in 2003.

‘If you’ve done any of that kind of writing, you’re not scared of putting words on a page,’ he says. ‘The thing that always exasperates me with so many writers is when they begin to angst about it. You have to write it down. It actually becomes better when you write it down anyway – sitting worrying about writing isn’t writing. Just writing rubbish is writing – you can make it better. Quite often, you’ve written something you didn’t know you were going to write if you just write.’ 

However, his first foray into fiction was unsuccessful: 

‘I wrote two books that were not crime fiction,’ he says, ‘and they just didn’t make sense. They didn’t sell and my agent didn’t get it. But then I wrote a book with a body in the first chapter and it all fell into place.’ 

When thinking of ideas for books, he usually starts with a location he would like to write about, fills it with characters and comes up with something they could be hiding – something they’ve done wrong that needs to be discovered. He writes two detective series: the Breen and Tozer series, set in London in the late 1960s, and the DS Alex Cupidi series, set in his native Dungeness, inspired by the standalone novel he released in 2016, The Birdwatcher. 

Plot almost comes last,’ he says. ‘That’s possibly my downfall because I end up having to work quite hard to hammer the plot into shape at the end. In some ways, the thing about who did what and why is the least interesting part for me. I kind of like ‘something terrible has happened in this place, how does it affect everybody left’. And so, the puzzle bit is the part I have to work quite hard to get around.’ 

Spain’s method is different; she creates the plot first, fills it with characters. But on one thing, Spain and Shaw are absolutely united: serial killers aren’t scary. 

‘I find the scariest villains are the ones the ‘normal’ ones that do a lot of damage,’ says Spain. ‘It’s not the bogey man or that Jo Nesbo-type serial killer, the people committing atrocities in the most horrifying way, that are truly terrifying. Those people do exist but there aren’t that many of them. One of my favourite books is called The Valley of the Squinting Windows. It’s set in rural, 1950s Ireland and there’s a woman in it who’s a gossip – the damage she does… I think someone commits murder and someone commits suicide and she’s just destroying this town. I find that terrifying because you know people like that; they exist. The real-life, malicious people that damage other people – I find that much scarier.’

‘I almost believe serial killers don’t exist but I know they do,’ says Shaw. ‘Whereas the father figure in Jo’s book is really scary. Not scary because he does anything scary but because you can see the malign stuff around him and I’m much more disturbed by that.’ 

Spain’s latest book, Six Wicked Reasons, opens with the return of a brother, after a fifteen-year disappearance. It’s based on a true story, on the experiences of her friend’s family when a long-lost son returned after a prolonged absence. 

‘In Ireland, you don’t get that many murders but you get a lot of disappearances,’ says Spain. ‘This guy, when he came back, said that with every year it got more difficult to come back.’ 

In Six Wicked Reasons, the return is not all that it seems and soon there are dark and difficult consequences for the whole family. 

Shaw’s latest release is the paperback version of Deadland, the second in the DS Alex Cupidi series. When a severed limb is discovered hidden inside a sculpture at Margate’s Turner Contemporary, Cupidi finds herself at the heart of one of the most dangerous investigations of her career. 

‘It’s an interesting place, Dungeness,’ Shaw says. ‘It’s very divided politically, because of Brexit, and it’s also facing France. You get millionaires like Alain de Botton there, living in amazing houses, but also a lot of working-class people, so there can be a lot of tension.’ 

And what is a good story without a smattering of tension? It seems that, within the writing community, however, there is very little. Shaw is in a writing group with Dissolution author C.J. Sansom. It was under orders from the writing group that Sansom included a prologue that got him spotted by an agent, published, famous. 

‘Of course, the editor made him take the prologue out,’ says Shaw. ‘But we wanted him to leave it in – that’s the bit that got them hooked!’ 

Shaw and Spain appear regularly at Harrogate Crime Festival, recognise members of the Lincoln audience they met there and continue conversations. Over the next few weeks, both will continue travelling – Spain will end up in Aberdeen, Lapland, Paris and Marseille. When they’re not at festivals, they’re giving talks. When they’re not giving talks they’re at signings, or travelling to signings. That’s why, in the minutes they have, they’re writing, one of their two books a year. They’re not scared of the page. Or serial killers. 

Thanks to Lindum Books and Milly at Quercus.

Nothing in the Rulebook editor, Ellen Lavelle, is a graduate of the University of Warwick’s prestigious Writing Programme. An aspiring novelist and screenwriter, she has worked with The Young Journalist Academy since the age of fourteen, writing articles and making short films for their website. She’s working on a novel and interviews authors for her blog – you can follow her @ellenrlavelle on Twitter. She is currently commissioning features for Nothing in the Rulebook and can be reached via the email address.

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