On the paperback publication day of Cal Moriarty‘s The Killing of Bobbi Lomax, Cal and fellow Prime Writer Kate Hamer (The Girl in the Red Coat) enjoy tea, cake and chat in Bath and talk about the process of writing their fiction.
Kate: Cal, your paperback is out today and it’s looking really gorgeous.
Cal: Thank you. I really love the cover.
Kate: It is beautiful. So, can you tell me: it’s a detective story but it doesn’t feel like a detective story.
Cal: Thank you. I wanted to tell the story in the most non-obvious, non-clichéd way. And that is similar to The Girl in the Red Coat, in that regard trying to tell a story of a crime in a very different way.
Kate: that’s right. Girl in the Read Coat was classified as crime but crime is such a wide spectrum. It has a vicious crime at the centre, that’s true. The traditional police procedural doesn’t seem to be where the focus is anymore.
Cal: I agree with you. When I was writing this, I was thinking of the more abstract crime novels, like The Sisters Brothers and The Luminaries where you have a crime but in a way that’s the least interesting thing in it. The why and the wherefore and that burrowing down into the core of a town of such different characters was really what I wanted to do with #KillingBobbi.
Kate: Crime is such a human thing, isn’t it? Obviously, Girl in the Red Coat is about a missing person. I read somewhere that all stories about missing people are crime stories but are also really love stories, and I thought that was really interesting. In your book it’s really the human emotions that propel people along.
Cal: Yes, I really wanted to focus on that rather than the usual follow this clue, follow that clue, the end. A body count pile up isn’t what interests me as a reader or a writer. My second novel is about a guy who may or may not be a serial killer, so it’s a challenge not to focus on the body pile up but the psyche of the character involved and how they manipulate those around them to get what they want. It was Scorsese I think that said there’s always a love story at the heart of all his films and it might not obviously be the centre, but it’s always there.
Kate: I would definitely agree with that. And, interesting what you say about your characters. Clark is so interesting, he is not your traditional bad guy. Was it always your intention to have a morally ambiguous character at the centre of the book?
Cal: Yes, I really wanted people to be intrigued by him and against their better judgment be really rooting for him. And by the end, you are doubting what you yourself are feeling, your own moral compass has gone out of the window.
Kate: I felt like that actually.
Cal: And, he may or not be a killer.
Kate: Yes, it puts you in a very strange position as reader.
Cal: Yes, I wanted the reader to be in cahoots with him and want him to succeed.
Kate: Yes, not just why but also the fact he’s so good at what he does. Did you do lots of research into his methods etc.?
Cal: Well, I was a Private Eye, so knew how people would go about fraud and forgery.
Kate: Yes, he’s believable and likeable.
Cal: I don’t think it will spoil it too much for people, but I’m thinking of getting him back into the story, most likely in Book 3 where he helps our detectives with a case.
Kate: I’m really intrigued by the fact that you were a Private Eye in the City of London. Can I ask anything about it?
Cal: Well, we dealt with a lot of corporate stuff, divorce cases, and like Girl in the Red Coat, with abducted children, but mostly in these cases children who have been abducted by the parent that the Court didn’t award custody to and often taken outside the jurisdiction.
Kate: Was it unusual to be a female private eye, did it help?
Cal: I think it’s fair to say that being a woman, people speak to you more, tell you stuff they wouldn’t tell a guy who has appeared on their doorstep. I was the only female private eye I knew of. There’s more now though.
Kate: What similarities between writing and private eye work?
Cal: Well, I think there are many. One, you get a case and get it finished. Same with a novel you’ve got to get to the end, that’s where all the answers are. You have to be really dogged and determined. Just like being a writer. Never let anyone tell you no. And with detective work, everything is on a time limit. The client is paying, they don’t want it taking forever and costing tens of thousands of pounds instead of a few thousand. As a detective you have to have goals you can actually achieve. So, with writing, I know what I want the outcome to be, I just have to plot out a plan to get me there, as efficiently as possible!
Kate: Yes, like with Girl in the Red Coat I wrote very quickly the first chapter, and then I very quickly wrote the final two paragraphs of the novel and in between that I just didn’t really know what was going to happen. I didn’t know what would happen between A and B. I know some people have Excel spread sheets, but I just like being surprised. I know people plot it extensively. How about you? You sound like you plot quite thoroughly.
Cal: Like you, I always know what the outcome is, the ending. I think it’s really difficult to write unless you know the ending because how otherwise do you get there…
Kate: But some people don’t do they…
Cal: No, that’s right, I have to know the ending. And plan towards it otherwise it’s a great big blancmange and I’m not going to be endlessly rewriting that. No way.
Kate: I rewrite like crazy.
Cal: Yes, I just want to, probably crazily, get it right the first time. So I write a chapter a day (approx 2000 words). I rewrite it that day and when I get up in the morning I re-read the previous chapter to get me in the right mind-set/connect back to the style of the piece etc. If it needs tweaking then I’ll do that and then I’ll write that day’s 2000 words.
Kate. I’m envious. That must be quite a quick progress.
Cal: Well, it should be. But sometimes life’s curveballs get in the way too much and you totally lose the flow. I’m a screenwriter, so I’m used to writing a feature film screenplay, the writing of it, in 3-4 weeks. I don’t want to spend three years writing a novel if it’s avoidable!
Kate: The very first thing that comes for me, is an image, and atmosphere.
Cal: Very filmic.
Kate: Yes, I feel it’s going well if I can see it as a film (The Girl in the Red Coat has been optioned by a production company). If I get stuck I take my characters out for a walk and ask them what’s their problem.
Cal: And tell them to get on the darn page!
Kate: Your novel is extremely filmic. I love the way it’s plotted. The way it zips around in time, it felt like Tarantino’s film Pulp Fiction. How did you organise that in your head, did you write the chapters and then organise the time frame?
Cal: Well, I really wanted it to occur around Halloween, as what happens is grotesquely frightening and so I had that as a benchmark and then I had to organise everything else around that. And so that the reader is in the story, both stories, at their genesis, I had to have two timelines, one for each of the main narratives. I had to ensure that afterwards I went through and made sure all the dates were exactly correct. A kind of who knew, what when scenario.
Kate: I was very intrigued by The Faith, the all consuming, all powerful religion in #KillingBobbi.
Cal: Well, I wanted to put a religion in it where people were indoctrinated from birth, and held in that state essentially until death. Which is really difficult to do these days in a Western country, I wanted it to be like 17th century England where your life was controlled by the church. Every single aspect of your life.
Kate: But you purposefully didn’t name it.
Cal: Well, I went to a Catholic school and a Catholic college but I’m an Atheist, but my parents are catholic. So, I wanted it to be a religion that could actually be any world religion; that people would recognise all the tropes no matter what their own religion was. And I thought that was worth investigating in the book. It must be very difficult to live an individual life amongst that when in essence the Faith is micro-managing the town and its citizens’ lives. We don’t really have that as Westerners unless we choose it. These religions share common themes, but they don’t share a name. I thought that would be worth investigating in the novel for readers: imagine if England was a rigorous Anglican society where you must go to church, you mustn’t do this or that – what would that be like to live under? Quite draconian I’d imagine. Because we don’t have that memory of draconian religion, I thought that would be worth bringing into the novel. And, as a warning to readers, when religion goes bad and becomes too controlling, then woe betide the rest of us.
Kate: Same with my novel. Religion can be used in so many different ways, for good or ill. In that, it’s great for conflict, the metaphysical element and the crowd control aspect. You can’t ignore that as a writer, quite a lot of conflict. And, as we know, conflict’s very good for writer; we’re attracted to certain stories.
Cal: I love that about Girl in the Red Coat, also set in the States, very similar theme in that regarding religion. We feel compelled to investigate it.
Kate: Where do you think your stories arise from? Have you always written?
Cal: From a very early age I was writing plays, and getting my cousins to star in them, crossing out their lines, getting them to learn new ones, telling them where to stand. A complete megalomaniac director, aged 8.
Kate: Yes, I wrote as a child also and I was lucky I grew up in a household full of books. My mum was an avid reader, she had a huge amount of Victorian tales in the house including The Water Babies, a freaky strange book, I still have my copy. Also, the Grimm’s Fairy Tales, where they didn’t spare the child the very dark horrors and I think that’s in my work now, it’s stayed with me all that time. I thank the fact that I was brought up with books. I always wrote books and illustrated them and stapled them together to make a book.
Cal: Do you still draw now?
Kate: No, I went to art school, for a bit, studied drawing, but I just stopped. I think I realised I was competent but I used to get frustrated I had it in my mind what I wanted to do, but just couldn’t put it on the page. And I think with writing, it just came a bit easier than it did with art. What’s next for you?
Cal: I’m writing Death in Wonderland which is the second novel in the Wonderland series and, talking of dark, it takes my Detective Marty to some very dark places.
Kate: I love the title. I’m quite jealous of that title!
Cal: I can sell it to you…but talking of dark, your novel is a very dark fairy tale so it’s interesting to hear you say how the Victorian tales warped your mind.
Kate: Yes, maybe permanently.
Cal: And how about your second one, still dark?
Kate: Yes, a coming of age tale about family secrets set in a forest.
Cal Moriarty was in conversation with Kate Hamer. The Killing of Bobbi Lomax is published in paperback today by Faber & Faber.