Scottish noir writer John Dodds has just published an audio book version of The Bone Machines, his chilling serial killer novel set in Glasgow. Currently living in Bulgaria, he took time from his busy writing schedule to take a few questions from Noir Nation‘s Eddie Vega.
Noir Nation: At what point did you know you were a writer? What was the process of discovery like?
Dodds: I’m not sure about that one. All I know is that I loved writing stories from the age of 10 or 11. But even when my first short story was published, I didn’t think of myself as a writer. Just as someone who wrote and who sold a story. What I mean is I feel I can call myself a writer simply because I write. Certainly I much prefer the word writer to author. But given what’s been happening with my work recently I suppose I can officially now call myself a writer.
Whatever the heck that means, it’s definitely exciting times for me. Whether I’m a writer or just a guy who writes.
Noir Nation: Why crime fiction? Why not write about vampires and zombies?
Dodds: Ah, but I do write about vampires and zombies… I’ve just completed a YA novel called The Mechanikals, which contains variants of those creatures! My first genre love was science fiction, followed by horror. I’ve written some short stories in those genres. Indeed, I’ve also written some paranormal romance and I have an anthology out from Melange Books called Warriors and Wenches, under a pseudonym, JT Macleod. I don’t think of myself exclusively as a crime writer, because I write in other genres, too. Though at this stage I have more crime stuff planned than anything else, with at least two more DI Tom Kendrick books in the pipeline, and maybe a psychological thriller or two as well.
Noir Nation: What are the elements that distinguish crime noir from other forms of crime fiction?
Dodds: Noir crime comes across to me like heightened reality. You take something dark, and make it even darker. It’s believed that the black novel as described by the French, started the whole genre off. To what extent it differs from, or is the same as, the hard-boiled genre is a matter for debate. Take a Hammet or an Elmore Leonard and you have noir summed up right there. It certainly differs in that it’s not about locked rooms or clever policemen solving mysteries. The anti-hero is a lynchpin of such fiction, and in that sense closer to true human nature. Nobody’s perfect, after all. But, like you say at some point the word becomes useless. Noir is a catchall that simply can’t hold all the nuances that the genre has to offer. Other than, perhaps, a kind of truth that cosy crime doesn’t tolerate. Outside of the USA, a great modern book that maybe hasn’t been called noir but arguably is because of its essence is Out by Natsuo Kurino. Japanese noir, in fact (I don’t know the Japanese word for noir, but there has to be one). And anything by John Connolly is noir to the core, and darker than most, to be honest.
Noir Nation: Tell us about your most recent audio book. How did it come to be made?
Dodds: Bone Machines started life as a small press publication. The publisher went bust. So it became a free podcast (which I recorded myself). And it was the podcast that brought my work to the attention of Blackstone Audio. Blackstone offered me a contract for a commercial audiobook version. They asked a New York reader to look at the manuscript for the follow up novel, Kali’s Kiss. The reader recommended to Blackstone that they should pick up the second book also. So there you have it. The free podcast is now no longer available, and the commercial audio will be in bookshops, and online shops from August (Kali’s Kiss is out in September). I believe there will be a downloadable version at some point also.
Noir Nation: Tell us more about the audio book market. Who buys them? Do they sell more than their print versions? How do they compare with eBooks?
Dodds: I honestly have no idea. And I won’t know about my own sales for at least six months. I do believe audiobooks are very popular, but I couldn’t venture any stats. But with print sales apparently dropping, eBooks and online media picking up, the signs are that audio is doing extremely well also. Especially when you think that Blackstone, for example, has been nominated for Grammy awards, and has used acting talent like Val Kilmer and, forthcoming, I believe, Robin Williams and others, they certainly have a high profile.
Noir Nation: Did you collaborate with the actor who voiced the book?
Dodds: No, I didn’t. Blackstone are the experts on that score. They chose the actor, director and studio team, so it’s all in their hands.
They’ve been a great organisation to work with and I am excited to hear the book for the first time – my eBook publisher, Edward Stanton (Just Imagine It Ink) tells me that Robin Sachs has done an incredible job with the narration.
Noir Nation: What was your writing process like?
Dodds: Before I tackled Bone Machines I’d written numerous short stories.I’d attempted two books before it as well, but both of them stalled. However, once I had the basic concept for Bone Machines I wrote when I could. I generally don’t outline, though. But I put down some bullet points about what targets I want to hit. I sometimes miss, though, because my characters have a naughty habit of going their own way, in spite of my best efforts. I wrote it over a period of several years, snatching time after my day job. Intermittently, at that. But the follow up, Kali’s Kiss, is a longer work and I wrote that over the course of a year. No day job to hinder me on this occasion. I write directly onto my computer. My longhand is terrible, and I find it slows me down too much. I suppose because I trained as a journalist, so straight from head to typewriter, or laptop, is something that’s in my blood now.
Noir Nation: Do you socialize with other crime writers? If so, does it help your creativity? Or hinder it?
Dodds: I do a bit of socialising, but not a great deal. Crimespace, Facebook, my own blog and elsewhere lets me interact with others. In fact one thing I’ve enjoyed lately is starting to interview creative people for my blog. Podcasters, writers and the like. I have a shopping list of people I hope to catch, and one of those will definitely be Seth Harwood who writes the great Jack Palms series.
Interaction can help with creativity, yes. Never hinders it. But of course it’s a challenge when I see all the work that indie writers put into their promotional work, and I applaud them for that. I find myself doing more and more on that, but making sure I have most of my time set aside for novel writing.
Noir Nation: What’s the market like for crime fiction in the UK?
Dodds: Healthy, I think. Go into any bookstore, and you’ll find big crime sections – larger than science fiction, horror and so on. We Brits love a good crime. And us Scots perpetrate so many crimes that we love nothing more than to read about other criminally-minded folks
Noir Nation: Do you use online social media to create awareness of your work? If so, which platforms do you think work best?
Dodds: Blogging is an excellent tool, though you have to keep the content going, and interacting with other people’s blogs. Podcasting is great also. I’ve had a few of my short stories out in podcast form, and I podcast my first novel, as I mentioned before. In fact it was podcasting that drew the attention of lots more people to my work than any other medium, including Facebook, Twitter, and the other usual suspects.
Noir Nation: Tell us about your literary influences.
Dodds: Where to start? Well, I was a huge lover of science fiction from early on, and I still love the genre. So people like Robert Heinlein, Ray Bradbury, Arthur C. Clark, Michael Moorcock, were big influences on me. Of course the required reading at school – the literary giants – also proved influential, but not until after I’d left school and read them because I wanted to, and not because I had to. Dickens, Thomas Hardy, Tolstoy and the like. But discovering crime novels was great for me, because the best of them had a psychological depth combined with the roller coaster ride. For me, though, one of the greatest ever thrillers is The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins.
Collins, of course, is said to be the father of the crime detection novel, with The Moonstone, which I also loved.
Noir Nation: What is the most important element in crime fiction?
Dodds: For me it’s great characterisation and seeing what happens when you put your protagonists under immense psychological pressure. Plot is secondary to that, though a great story is of course all about character in the end.
Noir Nation: Of the questions I did not ask, which would you most like to answer?
Dodds: I suppose I would like to say something about the fact that I write different kinds of genre fiction, and why. I’ve found that the science fiction community has a healthy love of crime fiction also.
I’m not sure whether the reverse is true, though I do know some crime buffs who will pick up an SF from time to time. Which is why it isn’t a big stretch for me to explore other genres. Plus I love a bit of variety in my writing – on occasion I’ve even written Victorian pastiche. But I’ve lately ventured into YA fiction with what I hope is a newish concept, steampunk superheroes. The Mechanikals, the first book in a projected trilogy, has influences from Wilkie Collins and Dickens, and there are crime elements in it, too. I will be looking for an agent or publisher for that once I’ve had a couple of proofing passes.