I was lucky enough to be invited to facilitate a session at this weekend’s Newcastle Noir Literary Crime Festival, held in the Central Library in my old home town of Newcastle.
The session was entitled, ‘The Men in Black‘ – due to the fact that the authors interviewed write novels firmly entrenched in the ‘real world’ and dealing with very ‘real’ issues whilst still telling highly readable fiction.
Luke McCallin is the author of the Gregor Reinhardt trilogy – Man from Berlin, Pale House and The Ashes of Berlin: set during and in the aftermath of World War II, while Paul Hardisty is the creator of the Claymore Straker series, in which the protagonist is a vigilante justice-seeker initially working for, and then against, big company politics and ethics.
One audience member pointed out during the Q&A session that whoever put the two of them together on stage was ‘inspired’ (that would be Jacky Collins, Dr Noir – organiser and heartbeat of the festival), and he was right: while at first glance the authors and their works have little in common, it’s the environments their protagonists live in, and the consequences that they face for their actions, that make them two of a kind. There are no quick, easy, solve-it-all with fists or guns here – instead, there is the fear that one wrong move could result in a knocking down of doors in the middle of the night and a succumbing to powers far greater than the typical serial killer or axe-wielding maniac – these are works where the environment is as much a character as any speaking role.
Luke McCallin was born in Oxford, and grew up in Botswana and Zimbabwe, and has worked with the UN as a humanitarian relief worker and peacekeeper in the Caucasus, the Sahel, and the Balkans.
Paul Hardisty was born in Canada, has worked all over the world in jobs ranging from gold explorer to engineering to roles in environmental science and is currently the CEO of CEO at the Australian Institute of Marine Science.
Not your typical ‘crime’ writers then (if such a thing exists).
My feeling is that the role of a good facilitator is to be as invisible as possible – the audience is there to hear the authors, not the interviewer. To that end, all my job entailed was to think up the questions that I, as a reader of their books, would like to know the answer to, ask them and then sit back and listen. This isn’t always as easy as it sounds: I’ve interviewed authors who range from the paralysingly taciturn to the overly verbose – determined to take you through their newest novel and the questions be damned. I’ve also seen panels where the authors on stage together clearly have not read their peer’s works (at best) or have read them and hate them (that’s about the worst…)
I’m pleased to say that none of the above was the case in Sunday’s interview: there was incredible mutual respect shown by Luke and Paul – both for each other’s works and professional lives.
Luke and Paul gave short, concise introductions to their respective series – Luke expanding on Gregor Reinhardt, a German intelligence officer and once and future Berlin detective through, and in the aftermath of WWII, Paul outlining what drew him to Claymore Straker and made him write the first (quite brilliantly titled) book in the series ‘The Abrupt Physics of Dying‘. They talked about the long process from conception to distillation, and how their respective series took on lives of their own: stories that just needed to be told.
We talked about their research methods – both primary and desktop: how they approach that research to bring landscapes: some long-gone, some disappearing, and others very much of the here and now, to life.
We talked about their protagonists – at first glance very different men, but, as they explained about the other’s works unprompted, very much of the same beating heart – men who just have to do the right thing, in worlds where doing the right thing can be difficult, indeed, sometimes fatal. Men who are not able to toss off quips when they kill or have someone close to them be killed: men who feel and suffer from the consequences around them and do not remain the same cardboard cutouts throughout the series, precisely because of what they have seen and done.
We talked about leaving such characters behind: The Gregor Reinhardt books were very much a trilogy, and there is a feeling of definitive end by the time the reader reaches the end of Ashes but, as Luke explained, there are more stories to be told: about the time, the people and the world – lessons for today from yesterday. He talked about his current work, being very honest about the toll and effort of writing a potential prequel/ earlier story to the series: this isn’t just another case of the protagonist wandering into another town to find nefarious events happening which need to be solved. These are stories, and research which take effort and time. Paul talked about his new novel Turbulent Wake (which I’ll be reviewing shortly in a future post), a very different piece from the Straker novels: a mystery of sorts, but of a very different, smaller scale and more personal nature, and where the desire came from to write that novel – a novel thirty plus years in the making, (if not the actual writing, then the development).
The key thing for both authors, as far as I could tell from the session and my discussions with them outside of it, boiled down to the answer they gave when I asked what was more important – the facts or the story? They answered almost as one: that they were one and the same thing. The stories don’t exist without the facts, and there’s no value or desire to bend the facts to ‘make’ the story. That’s why they are what they are.
The books have messages.
Not preachy, didactic tales: they may be ‘rollicking adventures’ as Luke commented, but make no mistake, they have serious messages within them. How serious? Well, it’s the first time I’ve been in an author interview where an audience member was moved to tears by the power and honesty of the writers speaking on stage (and it wasn’t just one, as I discovered afterwards).
Not, I hope, that the interview was any more ‘serious’ than the books themselves are. We talked about idle threats from climate denier keyboard warriors (they never show up in person), about the opportunity offered by real-life job experiences (Potentially a best seller, Luke commented, “Just add testosterone…”), and dream casting in the perfect world where their respective series are turned into movie/ TV properties (Paul saw Jake Gyllenhaal as Straker, Luke lamented on the passing of the late, great Bob Peck as a perfect Reinhardt, and talked about the possibilities offered by a graphic novel representation of the series).
The session finished all too quickly, but the audience went away happy, and, judging by the signings and purchases after, keen to read more. Which is always a good sign.
I’d like to thank Paul and Luke for their responses, Jacky Collins for the invite, and Karen Sullivan at Orenda Books for making the pre-publication copies available to me ahead of the event.
You can find all of Paul and Luke’s books via Amazon, and I’ll be providing my full review of Turbulent Wake in a future post.