Today we're delighted to have crime writer Steven Dunne dropping by for a chat. Steven's gripping thrillers are set on our doorstep right here in Derby which gives them an added frisson.
Firstly, could you tell us, without any spoilers, a little about your novels and
their 'hero' DI Damen Brook ...
In many ways Brook is a broken man. Though once a rising star in the Met with brilliant detection skills, he sees himself as a failure. His marriage ended in painful divorce and his relationship with his daughter is strained. In addition, a case from his past – a serial killer called The Reaper – resulted in a nervous breakdown and a move away from London. Twenty years later, he lives in isolation in Derbyshire and his sleep is invaded by memories of his past, particularly the horrific death of a schoolgirl. To make matters worse, his transfer on medical grounds is much resented by local officers and Brook’s only ally in Derby CID is his sidekick, DS Noble. In an ideal world he would have left the force but Brook knows he would only spend more time dwelling on his past.
The first two books of the series take Brook back to his past and he must revisit The Reaper killings that nearly destroyed his sanity and his career, solve the case and hope to escape with his sanity intact.
He's now into his fourth adventure but you seem to have had a long road to publication.
I suppose so, though I did start writing quite late. I conceived the idea for The Reaper six years before I self-published it in 2007. Without a deal and a deadline in place and with a living to earn, it was easy to take more time over the novel than I can take now. By the same token, it means productivity is low. When Harper Collins bought the rights and released The Reaper internationally in 2009, my writing process had to change radically. I do miss those carefree, pressure-free days but now the writing career is virtually full-time, it’s great to push myself. Thus my fifth DI Brook novel is close to completion.
You pursued a variety of jobs from journalist to teacher to stand-up comic, before turning to writing. Was the itch to write there all along or is it something that's grown on you?
A bit of both. A lot of the jobs were things I fell into for which I discovered an affinity. I make no claims to be a polymath but I’ve always been creative and writing and performing was just a more gregarious version of novel writing. The problem with writing comedy is that at some point someone else has to give you permission to proceed whether it is to perform your work at their venue or to commission a comedy series. I found novel writing the perfect way to explore many of the ideas I wished to express and needed no-one’s say-so about content.
What attracted you to thriller/ crime specifically?
I’m not sure. I think it’s a streak of OCD in me that demands the creation of order from chaos and writing crime novels allows me to achieve this. Maybe I’m just anal. I came to thrillers quite late and my preferred genre to read is still literary fiction. I suspect I haven’t yet written a literary novel because I was too afraid that I wouldn’t be able to write effectively without the plot constraints that demand I move the story forward.
Your first novel Reaper was self-published but then picked up by Harper Collins - which sounds like a lot of authors' dream come true. Presumably there was a lot of hard work to get to this point?
There was. To an extent you do not realise when embarking on a novel just how many different skills you’re going to need to get your story to the next level. You are editing your own stuff, creating a synopsis and selling yourself to agents and publishers. And when that fails and you decide to self-publish it opens up yet more skills that you have to learn. And all this without Twitter and Facebook.
You do a LOT of promotion in local bookstores. Do you feel this is necessary to get noticed and a little bit out of the shadow of established best-selling authors?
Not only do I feel this is necessary but I love it. Spending twelve months confined in a room creating thrillers has its moments but it is rather insular. At the end of that process it’s essential to get out and about to meet people especially potential and current readers. The feedback I get is inspiring and keeps me up to my work. Unfortunately the national newspapers, apart from The Sun oddly, appear to have taken a vow of silence about my work. They reviewed both Deity and The Unquiet Grave. I don’t know why this should be – I’m confident the Brook series is up there with the best thrillers produced in the last five years – but having to rely mainly on word-of-mouth critical endorsements makes it even more vital to connect with the public.
Did all this help in bringing you to the attention of a publisher?
Very much so. Having self-published Reaper (as it was then called) I worked extremely hard to promote the book and managed to sell significant copies. The receipts went some way to meeting the cost of self-publication but the chief value of the exercise was the flare I’d sent up to the publishing industry. I was able to email agents and publishers with impressive sales numbers for a physical book which I could send them if they expressed an interest. Eventually HC took sufficient notice to pick up the rights to Reaper and its sequel.
Aside from the excellent story-lines, a great attraction for me of your novels is knowing the locations - in my home town of Derby. What made you decide to set the story in a 'real' identifiable place rather than a fictional Midlands city?
I’m not a fan of being coy about a location. I want people to identify with real city streets in real cities as people still can with Sherlock Holmes. Locating my novels in Derby allowed me two further advantages. No-one else was writing thrillers in the city – Stephen Booth has taken the rest of the county for his great novels – and I could actually physically go and check a location to ensure that sense of heightened realism. And, of course, as I was self-publishing it certainly helped sales to have produced a book set in the city in which I was promoting it.
Personally I feel more engaged with a crime taking place in somewhere I know – and I'm hoping DI Brook will be investigating one in my own suburb one day.
Name that suburb and I’ll start researching it. But, yes that is certainly the feedback I receive. Being able to place yourself on the same streets walked by DI Brook and his colleagues as well as the criminals certainly seems to add an extra frisson for local readers.
There have been four books now featuring DI Brook. What's next for him and do you have any plans for books that DON"T involve him?
I DO have plans for books without DI Brook but until I have pushed him to the summit of fictional British detectives I’m determined to mine his character for as long as I can find interesting and challenging cases for him to solve. And I finally feel I’m starting to get the attention I deserve. My latest novel, The Unquiet Grave has been shortlisted for the East Midlands Book Award so hopefully the national press will take more notice of the next DI Brook thriller A Killing Moon. And I still have many requests to complete The Reaper trilogy (the final part would be entitled The Resurrection) and hope to find the time to do that in the next couple of years though whether it would be traditionally published is another matter. Headline can’t touch it because Harper Collins control the first two novels in the series. Perhaps I will publish cheaply on Amazon as a reward for my loyal fans.
What does a crime -writer read - more crime or something that's a complete break?
I do read crime. I find I have to though it can sometimes feel like a busman’s holiday. My first love is modern American literature and I try and read as often as I can, given the time constraints. I do find reading a book takes longer than it should because after a hard day at the computer, staring at my own words, relaxing with another author’s words is not always an effective way to unwind. I’m a working class boy and was brought up to relax in front of the TV. Shameful I know.
Not at all - I find sometimes a book fits my mood, sometimes TV.
Rather excitingly, the short-list for this year's East Midlands Book Award was announced this weekend - and The Unquiet Grave is one of the nominees! Best of luck Steven and many thanks for dropping by today.
If you haven't yet discovered DI Brook, you can read Maryom's reviews for Deity and The Unquiet Grave on the blog.