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PAUL CLEAVE in conversation with Tony R. Cox

Written by Tony R. Cox

How do you manage such detailed descriptions of locations – school, sawmill and angst-riven family life? Is this simply intense research?

It was always easier when you have Christchurch as a location – you can pretty much just write what you see – so it was / is a challenge setting it in a place that doesn’t exist, let alone in a different country. I’ve only seen a few small slices of small-town USA in real life, but I’ve seen plenty on TV, so pretty much just combine those two things and keep a mental map of where the key locations are.

As for the angst family life – I often try to give feelings to several characters over the books – I like none of my guys really being on even ground at any point.

Pace is a vital factor in the creation of thrillers, and His Favourite Graves is fast, yet controlled. Are there any specific techniques in your writing that you follow? Is this a conscious writing discipline, or is it the author sharing emotions with the characters you form?

A piece of advice my first editor ever gave me was ‘think about the ticking clock’. And I do. For the most part my books – including this one – tend to take place over a couple of days. That way the normal things that come into play – like getting DNA or forensic evidence – can’t come into play, because by then the events have already come to a head. But – last summer my first book got filmed as a TV show, and I was handed the chance to write the entire thing. Coming off the back of writing six tv scripts changed the way I wrote His Favourite Graves, and will change future books too, as I now make things leaner, which makes them feel faster.

Your characters are complex and clearly the result of a febrile imagination or a depth of research into the extremities of human nature. What stands out is the detail of each one. Is this a conscious literary strategy?

Well, having just looked up febrile in the dictionary, then I’d say it almost leads into what I was saying earlier, with the ticking clock. You put these folks under pressure, and they’re nervous and excited and scared and that in those moments of panic they’ll make decisions that they wouldn’t normally make – which is important. Especially in this book. You have to justify why a character is going to make a decision they would never make – and really get the reader to go along with it. All things being equal, it’s easy to go ‘oh, I wouldn’t do that if I were in that situation’, so you have to make things unequal – you gotta get that character into a pressure cooker where they know the decision is bad, but they think it’s all they got – and often one they can’t walk back.

The depth of problems almost all your characters are experiencing seems to denote experience – probably not yours!?

Ha ha – no, but I do often wish I could Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind myself to remove a few decisions from my memory.

How much research went into the personalities and fractured backgrounds of the pupils?

Well, not so much these days – but I did a lot of research way back when I started writing crime novels. I always wanted to write horror back then, until I read John Douglas’s Mindhunter books. That made me realise that crime is horror. It also gave me a good insight into serial killers – an insight that I still use with the books. But you have to go beyond that too, and come up with a reason why folks are the way they are – other than them just being bad. What itch are these guys trying to scratch? And whatever the answer is, you then have to come up with a different one for the next outing. 

Location is a central facet to the plot. You are a New Zealander: have you travelled through small-town USA a lot? Acacia Pines is quite specific, almost a forgotten outpost.

Just a few time to the USA, and usually bigger cities. But for the books I needed a small town miles away from anywhere, with a small police force that’s independent. This is the second time I’ve used this town now – and I use it when the stories won’t work here in New Zealand. For example, if these plots happened in a small town here, they’d just bring in more police from other nearby places – because in a country this small, everywhere is nearby, and the police are all part of one big police force. I had to break away from that.

You are a successful novelist. Most authors struggle to achieve success, but you have managed this since your very first published book. What advice would you offer to would be and existing crime fiction writers, and was it easy?

Well, reading widely is a good start. Great books inspire you, bad books make you think you can do better. Go to festivals and listen to authors speak on stage – aside from being the nicest people in the world, they have great advice, and you’ll learn that the journey can be painful, but most of us took the same one. You also learn lots of us are still anxious – every time I send a new book to my publisher, the email that goes with it will say ‘I hope you like this one, but if you don’t, that’s okay, nobody else has to see it’. Fourteen books in and I’m still as nervous as hell every time. So going to festivals and seeing most of us are all in the same boat is really helpful. Also, get a taste for gin – I don’t know any crime writers who don’t like a good gin and tonic.

Read Tony's review of HIS FAVOURITE GRAVES.

Orenda Books
RRP: £9.99
Released: November 09, 2023

Paul Cleave

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