Harrogate has its fair share of human misery, crime and heck, occasional violence: it can get ugly watching beige-clad pensioners battle for a window seat at Bettys. So asking Simon Kernick what his mum thinks of the torture and sex scenes in his thrillers seems from this vantage point, within reason. But the question throws Kernick into an animated spin: “Oy oy oy, aye aye aye!” Kernick objects down the phone.
Let’s examine a Kernick book: Severed opens with his hero Tyler waking up next to the naked, bloody torso of his girlfriend before watching DVD footage of himself hacking off her head.
“Are you sure you’ve read any of my books?” he asks incredulously. “I don’t do a lot of torture and I have no sex scenes! I can’t remember…in fact there aren’t any explicit sex scenes…”
I didn’t say ‘explicit’. Consider the evidence: In Severed, the body count rises, there’s a torture scene involving hot oil, several characters get their throat slit, there’s a violent shoot out, and although the sex scenes may be implied, it’s clear there’s a fair share of bedroom activity.
“Ok,” Kernick says about the book, “well, that’s the nearest I come to sex scenes.”
Let’s drop it. “I’m happy to answer,” Kernick retaliates. “I tended to write more violent books in my earlier days, I try to tone it down now because I find writing too much explicit violence is a depressing thing; it’s an area that’s been overdone. I think people are less excited about reading really gruesome and explicit scenes of violence now then they might have been five or ten years ago, there’s too much nastiness and extreme violence in real life. And I think people tend to read a lot, particularly in the crime genre, to escape that – so actually I think I write less violently now because I do try and make the books a more satisfying and ultimately enjoyable experience and I’m not 100% sure that really, really unpleasant violence lends itself to that.”
Kernick falls into the Lee Child camp of page-turning thrillers. But unlike Child, his heroes are relatively normal, complete with flaws and rife with ambiguity. Ultimately he tells great stories fuelled by fast twists and turns.
“As to the odd sex scenes,” Kernick continues, “when I was a kid I used to read sex scenes in crime books and I used to quite enjoy it, it was titillating when you’re a kid, but now I just don’t think it’s fashionable to write sex scenes. If you want sex you can go on the internet, you can go watch a film, I don’t think there’s much point in having it in crime. I tend to have a romance scene and it kind of cuts out, you know camera turns away, and that’s the end of it.” Very tasteful. “…yeah, very tasteful, exactly,” he laughs.
Simon is on the 2009 ‘Men in Crisis’ panel at the Theakstons Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival in July. He was programming chair of the Festival last year.
“One of the great reasons I enjoyed doing it is the less I did, the better it ran! There’s such an excellent organisational team that I was able to take a back seat and after having put together the programme, I was able to kick back and carry on with my own panels. It’s far less of a foreboding experience then many people might think and you know in a way, I’d do it again.”
Like many authors, it’s the social aspect of the event that keeps him coming back.
“It’s the biggest festival in Europe now…a lot of writers turn up and come, even if they’re not doing a panel, and I think it then becomes a really enjoyable social thing. Given our kind of work we don’t really get out that much so it’s actually fantastic to have the chance to catch up with everyone and exchange tips and enjoy ourselves and yeah – I just think it’s a really nice, pleasant, happy and sociable event to be honest, and we also sell a lot of books, so it can’t be bad.”
For Simon, hearing George Pelecanos and David Simon talk about The Wire is a must in 2009: “It’s an opportunity I’m probably not going to get ever again and it’s such a seminal series.”
You’d expect at the very least a bunch of successful crime authors packed into a posh hotel would end up in an Agatha Christie style plot – surely there’s the motive to kill off the competition, to keep your plots close to your chest.
“I don’t think you keep it close to your chest, it’s just it doesn’t come up in conversation. It’s a difficult thing to talk about really, because yeah, you don’t want to give any of the game away, but when you’re writing you spend so much time on your own writing, or thinking about writing, that actually when you get out with other people you tend to forget about it. So you’d be surprised about how little we talk about writing. The only topic I can think of that we always cover is the process of writing – to say that it always gets harder, it never gets any easier – if anything we have a good old moan about how difficult it is to keep the deadlines, to keep the stories coming, but we don’t discuss exactly what those stories are.”
And Kernick sheds light on the reputation of niceness crime authors carry.
“No one is perfect, I’m sure everyone has got their bad side! But the thing is when you come to a big Festival event like Harrogate you don’t see it, you just see the happy side and everyone drinks too much and they forget ,” he laughs, “They forget being nasty about anyone else, you know. I’ve always found the people in the crime writing community pretty good fun, pretty nice and always usually pretty helpful as well, there’s always the occasional bad apple but I’m not going to spill the beans…not in print.”
So no gossip then? “You know I’m not going to say, this is going on the website! What sort of gossip?? No, there’s never any gossip, none that’s ever going to be repeated,” he pauses. “I’m sure there’s plenty but you’ve got to be there to hear it…”
Simon’s latest thriller, Target, is released in plenty of time for the Festival in June. It begins when writer Rob Fallon drunkenly goes home with his friend’s ex, Jenny. Two men break in and kidnap her, trying to kill Rob, but he escapes. Jenny’s father insists she’s abroad and nobody believes Rob’s story.
“I wouldn’t describe it as a race against time,” Kernick explains, “but it’s another thriller set over a very short period of time, about 48 hours…no one believes him except the people that actually did the kidnapping and they try and shut him up. It’s a very fast paced book with him trying to investigate this kidnapping pretty much on his own and then being chased by the bad guys, it builds, I like to think, to a fast paced climax. But I guess the readers will be the judge of that…I enjoyed writing it and I read it through the other week to finalise the page proof and I was really pleased with it, so hopefully other people will be too.”
No doubt. The relentless use of time in his thrillers has ensured he’s sold near to a million copies of his books to date.
Once more I put my foot in it by asking if his macho heroes who attract beautiful women are something of an alter-ego.
“Oh, I don’t know about that! My alter-ego? Yeah right, like I’ve got time to do that.”
Besides, he insists, his heroes aren’t particularly macho. “I mean one or two of them sort of. I like to think they’re strong characters. But far more recently in my books particularly in Deadline and the new book Target, I have a very, very strong female character Tina Boyd, who’s had small appearances in the older books but plays a much more central role in both Deadline and Target. And she’s a very flawed character and a very natural character to write, a very easy character to write. She tends to be the dominant character in Deadline and Target. Maybe I’m heading down a different route with that.”
Writing in The Times about his Richard and Judy hit, Relentless, Kernick spoke about a shocking ordeal his16-year-old self endured. “I wanted it [Relentless] to be about an ordinary man living an ordinary life; a man who suddenly, in one terrifying moment, and through no fault of his own, finds himself in a situation from which there is no escape,” Kernick wrote. He went on to describe how, while hitch-hiking, he and his friends were robbed, told to strip, beaten up and threatened. He described how his captives asked where the shotgun was, and said his life really did flash before him.
It’s hard not to psychoanalyse the impact it had on his writing. If his protagonists aren’t an alter-ego, is there a sense of wish fulfilment at work?
“Funny enough, the characters I most identify with are the ordinary ones that find themselves in extraordinary situations that find themselves in trouble. I guess it’s wishful thinking for me that I would like to think if I was flung into situations like they are, that I would be as brave under pressure as they are sometimes in the acts that they do in the books to help them get out of the situation. But it’s pretty much wishful thinking,” he laughs.
When I raise the hitch-hiking incident, whether writing crime is somehow an act of catharsis, he brushes it off.
“I don’t know actually to be honest with you, it’s such a long time ago. You know, I’m 43 now. It clearly had a big effect on me at the time and it probably has a big effect on me still now, but it’s much more subconscious I think. So I don’t know. The reason I chose the crime genre had nothing to do with that, I used to write fantasy books beforehand and I sort of grew out of writing fantasy and I’ve always been very interested in reading crime fiction and true crime, and that was the main incentive for me to get into crime writing.
“I think you always get some satisfaction in writing the wrongs that aren’t always righted in real life. By the end of the book the bad guy tends to get some kind of comeuppance, there tends to get a strong sense of justice prevailing, where I think in a way that’s contrary to real life. In real life a lot of the time, as everyone knows, the bad guys often win, it’s not cut and dry, and the good thing about writing a book is you can get that kind of feeling where, yeah, there is some kind of justice, and I think by creating that I suppose in a way it is a cathartic feeling, it’s a nice feeling to – I don’t know – improve on real life.”
Simon believes men in crisis simply lend themselves to the turmoil of crime fiction.
“I think people who have things wrong with them or aren’t perfect tend to be more believable as characters and therefore I think readers can identify with them more. And secondly they are more original, you can do more with a flawed character. There’s always a goodie but they can have their bad side and sometimes they can be quite bad – it makes them more unpredictable – and I think if you’ve got a character that’s unpredictable and you’ve got a story that’s unpredictable then it makes it much more interesting from a reader’s point of view, and I think it’s also much more satisfying from a writer’s point of view to write those kind of characters.”
Simon has written from an early age.
“There was no specific turning point, the only turning point was when someone actually turned around and said they liked it – that was it. But in terms of my life, no it was a pretty slow, boring and laborious build up. I kept writing, kept trying to hone my books to be as good as I thought they could be and try and get them published. I wrote two books before I was published both of which were rejected by I think pretty much every agent and publisher in the country, all with standard letters as well, so you know I got a bit depressed. But if you really want to do it and you really enjoy writing you just keep going. I just kept going and one day I struck really lucky.”
While he’s talking, bird song comes down the phone. Does walking help inspire the twists and turns he writes?
“It’s not so much for inspiration, I get an idea and that just comes from every day life, I think of an idea and I try and build on it. The walking helps because I write a lot of my stuff in the morning and after lunch, which is always a little bit of a difficult time I think in the working day, when you’ve eaten a decent sized lunch and you’re feeling a little bit rested.”
There’s a great scene in Severed where Tyler eats a chicken ciabatta sandwich with relish as gangsters sit close by with guns. A community police officer enters the café threatening to trigger a blood bath, but when he orders the same sandwich, Tyler finds the time to admire his wise culinary choice.
“I did actually have a really nice ciabatta sandwich,” Simon laughs, “the one you’re talking about I actually ate on Goodge Street a few years ago and it was very, very tasty. I’m a big foody, I love my food, I cook every day and I always think it’s quite amusing in books when you take a little thing out of a situation, doing something otherwise to the drama to hand.”
On a full stomach, he walks and digests.
“It’s a good time to walk to think about what I’ve already written. I work out points that I’m struggling on. It’s a good time to mull over what you’re writing and to try and improve it and occasionally I take notes or take a dictaphone with me but usually I just sort of zone out a little bit, think about the book.”
A lot of his thrillers involve being chased; does the paranoia seep into his walks?
“I reckon it makes you more paranoid. I think having a vivid imagination and writing books in this field, yeah, definitely it makes you more paranoid. Occasionally when I’m walking in the woods I look over my shoulder, but so far I’ve been alright, but yeah, you do get a little bit like that. I think anyone with imagination does. But I live in quite a nice place and I walk in the country a lot, so yeah, it’s not a bad life really, I’m not that paranoid – mind you, there’s a dog walker coming at the moment. I’m watching her carefully, if I get cut off, you’ll know something’s happened…”
Simon Kernick was interviewed by Ann Chadwick.
© Theakstons Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival, Harrogate