An interview with Simon Duke

Simon Duke
The Perfectionist


Who are your influences? 

My influences are multiple and varied. Movies and music can be inspirational; everyday conversations and interacting with great people can be beneficial too. The more obvious literature influences are also quite numerous. However, if I had to come up with a shortlist of inspirational authors and books which helped me write The Perfectionist, I’d have to mention the works of Michael Connelly (e.g. The Poet), RJ Ellory (e.g. The Anniversary Man), Henning Mankell (The Kurt Wallander series), James Ellroy (e.g. Killer on the Road), Shane Stevens (By Reason of Insanity), as well as Dennis Lehane, John Grisham, and even Paul Auster and Ernest Hemingway.

Looking at the root of all things, I was born in Stoke-on-Trent (UK). I lived in rural England and had a very happy childhood. My family moved to France when I was eleven and I was parachuted into a French school without really speaking French. It took me a while to get up-to-speed with the other kids and I was (and I guess I always will be) the 'Angliche'. Hence my tendency to favor underdogs or characters with inner demons. I grew up watching many American film classics and loved the 80s films and music (some of it) and read many American novels. I grew fond of the modern gangster and of the transition from film noir and epic to the more gritty and realistic portrayal of crime in more recent times. Let's say that my writing sort of reflects bits of all that.

When did you begin writing?

I started work on my first novel, Out of Bounds, in 2012 (N.B. Out of Bounds was published in 2014). Until then I’d only managed to write short stories, and my writing was infrequent, despite my mind over-spilling with ideas and scenari. One day, I had car trouble on my way to work. The mechanic quoted me a hefty amount of money to carry out the necessary repair work – an amount I wasn’t willing to invest. I began commuting by train and rediscovered the joys of reading. By doing so I discovered crime fiction authors whom I’d never heard of before. Back then I was subject to binge reading. I’d read a novel or two per week, good ones and not so good ones. All this influenced me immensely. And at some point I asked myself, and why not me? This led me to writing the opening scene of Out of Bounds. Nine months later, I’d penned down my first novel.

In The Perfectionist, how did you come up with your story, characters, character names, POV, etc.?

I’ve always wanted to write about serial killers. They tend to fascinate me. In fiction, serial killers are highly stylized and even real-life serial killers have become celebrity monsters through media coverage. I read somewhere that serial killers are for adults what monster movies are for children: that is the guilty pleasure of scary fun. Serial killers are so extreme in their brutality (modus operandi) and in their behavior that we can be drawn to them out of basic and intense human curiosity. Their behavior is seemingly inexplicable, so we feel a duty to try and understand what their motives are. And they appeal to our most primal feelings: fear, lust or anger. So I reckoned I'd give the persona a shot myself, but with a novel angle.

The killer in The Perfectionist could be considered the ultimate serial killer. He seemingly chooses his victims at random across America; he has been at large for more than two decades; he has flown under the radar of the cops and the FBI by navigating through the loopholes of the federal law enforcement system; he respects a unique and horrific modus operandi and fine-tunes methods of execution to seek artistic perfection. In the world of law enforcement, there exists a scale on which to rate killers. My killer does not feature on the scale.

I also have a journalistic background and I’ve always dreamed of stumbling on a killer myself and pursuing him before submitting the proof of his guilt to the police. Gerry Stokes in the book lives that dream for me. His quest is epic. The other characters may be secondary but they play vital roles too. As for names, they tend to evolve during the writing project, but when I find one that sounds authentic, I keep it.

If you could actually meet one of your characters, who would it be?  Why?

I’d say: Gerry Stokes. He’s a complex character. He’s a rookie reporter stuck in small-town Iowa in the late 80s, working for a local paper, but with great ambitions. We meet him again more than twenty years later. He’s become a seasoned business journalist working for the Chicago Tribune. He’s a self-centered, obnoxious and arrogant guy with a soft spot for sex with prostitutes. Despicable. But he’s got talent and flair. The morbidity and seriousness of the investigation will change him, and so will his relationship with the woman who puts him on the track in the first place, Sarah Howard. Gerry’s evolution in the book is gradual and we grow to like his character. I’m sure he’d be a bit of fun to be with around a few beers.

Do you work from an outline? Can you tell us a little about your writing philosophy? 

Indeed, I start off with a story idea and write it down in a summary. Either the rest of the story comes to me straight away, or I begin writing a few scenes and things gradually fall into place. As soon as I have a solid enough backbone to a story, I flesh it out and divide the result into chapters. From there on, I write bit after bit. I set myself realistic goals (such as a certain amount of words to write per week/month) and above all do not hate myself if for some reason or another I do not meet my targets. There are times when the inspiration does come and I have to cash in to churn out more words than usual. Other times I realize the storyline is weak and needs beefing up, or I have a change in mind with regard to how events unfold. I then go back to the backbone and fit these new ideas in.

Having said that, whatever philosophy that may apply to me may not be necessarily relevant for others. I’d argue that you mustn’t be afraid to write, even if you think that what you’re writing isn’t quality. It’s the writing exercise that’s important. Put as much as you can on paper. It’s only afterwards that you do the sorting out. You have to believe in yourself and your capacity as a writer because if you don’t, no-one else will. If you don’t get published via the traditional route, then publish by your own means. It’s not a defeatist attitude; on the contrary it’s a sign of courage showcasing your will and desire to succeed in spite of the obstacles in your way. If you don’t secure a publisher’s representation the first time round, then you’ve always got a second chance, a third, or a forth. Never give up.

Tell me about your favorite scene in The Perfectionist. 

Though there are many to choose from, one that comes to mind right now is a scene about a third of the way in. Gerry Stokes is visiting his brother Joe who stayed in Iowa and took care of the hog farm, helping out their parents while Gerry went away to live the journalist hotshot life in Chicago. Without revealing too much with regard to the purpose of this visit, Gerry is basically forced to come back to the farm for the first time in many years, and Joe confronts him around coffee at the kitchen table for reasons linked to his brother’s absence. It’s an emotional scene between the two brothers who couldn’t have more different personalities. However, it’s also a crucial moment when I sow the seeds of Gerry’s shift in attitude and open his eyes to what he needs to preserve from the evil surrounding him during his investigation. It may not be an action-packed scene, but I remember being totally in phase with the writing and overall mood; the words just flowed out of me.

Have you ever tried writing in any other genres? 

So far I've only written crime fiction. It's my favorite genre. Besides, it offers a lot of scope for writers. Within crime fiction I can weave in all sorts of other genres: the thriller, a bit of romance, history, psychology, and even social commentary. Crime fiction is a great place to put your ordinary Joe in extraordinary circumstances, in situations that people would never experience in ordinary life. This then gives me possibility of putting my characters through a lot of human emotions, and that makes the process even more interesting.

Do you have any interesting writing-related anecdotes to share?

This is related to my third book, which I’m still working on. But there’s a scene in which my main protagonist, who is a hitman, goes to Spain and carries out a contract. His target is a rich and retired Englishman living in a mansion in Benidorm. A few days after I wrote that scene, I read in the papers that a retired Englishman living in Benidorm was found shot dead in his home and that the police were still without suspects. Needless to say, that kind of freaked me out. Now I’m keeping my fingers crossed that the Spanish police doesn’t comes across my Internet history!

Do you listen to music as you write?

As I get more comfortable with my writing I tend to put on a melody from time to time. It mustn't be too distracting though and make me want to dance on my chair instead of writing. So I opt most often for music without lyrics and make sure there is a constant flow coming through. Sometimes I like it soft and classical or jazzy, but when I need some more pace I listen to electro music too. I enjoy some movie soundtracks too. But before I reach that stage, I need silence. Silence is a prerequisite. I need it for my deepest thinking and concentration spans.

Thank you Simon for taking the time for Buttonholed Book Reviews

 Reader's connect with Simon Duke

Twitter: @SimonGDuke

No comments:

Post a Comment