Last week British international best selling crime writer Stephen Booth was in Dublin to speak to The Literary Society at Trinity College Dublin. Freelance journalist Vanessa Baker caught up with him as he stepped off the stage.
Stephen Booth started his writing career in the newspaper business in Cheshire, in 1974. A specialist rugby union reporter, working night shifts as a sub-editor on the Daily Express and The Guardian, his fiction career didn’t kick off until 1999. Then, in rapid succession, he was shortlisted for the Dundee Book Prize and the Crime Writers’ Association Debut Dagger competition for new writers, then won the £5,000 Lichfield Prize for his unpublished novel The Only Dead Thing, and signed a two-book contract with HarperCollins for a series of crime novels.
In 2000, Stephen’s first published novel, Black Dog, marked the arrival in print of his best known creations – two young Derbyshire police detectives, DC Ben Cooper and DS Diane Fry. Black Dog was the named by the London Evening Standard as one of the six best crime novels of the year – the only book on their list written by a British author. In the USA, it won the Barry Award for Best British Crime Novel and was nominated for an Anthony Award for Best First Mystery. The second Cooper & Fry novel, Dancing with the Virgins, was shortlisted for the UK’s top crime writing award, the Gold Dagger, and went on to win Stephen a Barry Award for the second year running.
In addition to publication in the USA, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, translation rights in the series have so far been sold in fifteen languages – French, German, Dutch, Italian, Swedish, Danish, Finnish, Norwegian, Spanish, Portuguese, Russian, Czech, Romanian, Bulgarian and Japanese.
Despite this huge success, Stephen Booth revealed there were only two books in the Blackpool, UK house where he grew up – the Bible and a book about fortune telling – and he devoured every word of each as soon as he learned to read. Inspired by the fictional worlds he went on to discover at the local library, the young literary enthusiast completed his first novel at 12. Looking to earn a living from writing, when Booth took his first job in journalism, he continued to write fiction in the evenings.
When his first novel, Black Dog was published in 2000, Booth told me that the publisher immediately assumed he was working on a sequel. Though he hadn’t originally conceived the novel as a series, he says he felt he wasn’t done with Derbyshire Detective Constables Ben Cooper and Diane Fry, and wanted to see where his protagonists would take him next.
After his second book about the pair, Dancing with the Virgins, came out in 2001, he quit his job as a journalist to write novels full time. Booth has since released a book from the series each year, with the twelfth, Dead and Buried, scheduled for release this summer.
He told me he doesn’t outline his plots before writing, but begins with characters, letting them drive the story : “When I feel very confident about who these people are, I’ll put them into a situation where they’re under pressure and see what they do. It’s their job to go off and find out what happened, not mine. They’re the detectives, I’m just the writer. I have entire faith in my characters to do that for me. Somehow it all comes together, and I don’t really know how that happens.”
Booth admits his characters often surprise him, taking the story in directions he hasn’t anticipated. But he wouldn’t necessarily recommend writing without a plan, it’s just what works for him.
Releasing a book every year can be difficult, he says, because he can be promoting one book and editing another while exploring ideas for yet another.
He says he doesn’t know how many more books are left in the series. There is currently no contract for a thirteenth book and Booth says he has not begun working on one. He explained, “You can tell when an author’s run out of ideas or lost interest in characters. I’ve always hoped I’d know when that happens to me. It gets harder every time. I wish it didn’t, but there are all these pressures. That first book just poured out of me.”
Booth says he has a lot of contact with fans from all over the world who often hold very strong opinions about the series, which he tries not to let influence him. “The good thing is, no two readers ever agree with each other.”
Another concern is that he’ll find himself writing a book he’s already written.
Booth attributes his initial success to writing about young protagonists when many crime writers wrote about alcoholic, middle-aged men with failed relationships, and choosing to uncover the darkness of a rural setting when most crime stories were set in cities. His stories have been described as “rural noir,” a term he says didn’t exist when he chose Derbyshire as his setting.
Aspiring writers are often advised to write what they know, but Booth argues the opposite. “It’s far more interesting to write about a new subject you’ve just discovered. That’s the journalist in me.”
As a journalist, he says he was often required to write about topics he knew little about, even working as a television critic for a period of time despite not owning a television. But working in journalism, he says, was the best experience because it taught him to turn his head at everything and honed his awareness for interesting facts and experiences that could later prove significant in his writing.
Booth revealed that he does a lot of research for his novels, talking to the police and reading non-fiction crime books, though he never bases his novels on real crimes, and has never interviewed a murderer. He doesn’t describe crimes or violence in any graphic detail, instead allowing readers to paint ideas of what happens in their own minds. “A writer’s most powerful tool is the reader’s imagination. If you can tap into that, you’ve tapped into a goldmine.”
A fan of crime fiction, Booth names Peter Robinson, John Harvey and Ruth Rendall as some of his favourite authors, but admits he doesn’t read much fiction when he’s writing because he finds it difficult to bounce back and forth between his own fiction world and someone else’s. “One downside of what I do now is that I don’t get a lot of time to read novels.”
Booth says about half of his day is devoted to things like corresponding with fans, dealing with agents, and handling publicity. “I find it quite frustrating that most of my focus is not on writing because that’s what I started out wanting to do.” Everyone has their own creative time when they are able to work best, he says. For him, it’s in the evening, admitting he isn’t a morning person.
He doesn’t give himself a word count goal or devote a specific amount of time to writing, but just lets himself go wherever his writing takes him.
One of the great things about the crime genre, he says, is that it gives an author the freedom to write about any topic but still centre it around an interesting story that makes people want to read to the end. “I think some of the best writing about contemporary social issues is happening in crime fiction right now. It’s such a wide genre, you don’t feel like you’re reading the same thing over and over. Half of English literature is crime fiction when you think about it.”
Booth tries to make his writing as contemporary as possible, which he says can be a challenge when writing a book a year before it will hit shelves.
A television series based on Booth’s books is currently in development. His next book, Dead and Buried, will be released 21 June 2012.