Tuesday, 26 July 2011

Writers Talk About Writing - Charlie Williams

(Once you've finished reading what Charlie's got to say, check out the whole series of interviews here)

Charlie Williams wrote a few books, including the Mangel series featuring antiheroic doorman Royston Blake, but he is probably best known as a founder member of the "Yo Boys", a group of breakdancers who used to bust moves in Worcester precinct, circa 1985. Charlie was the one who could do a turtle spin. Like a real turtle.

We're in a lift, I'm someone important (come on, pretend), you've got thirty seconds (tall building, slow lift) to tell me about your latest book.

ONE DEAD HEN (Amazon US | UK), which comes out on August 9th, is the long-awaited fourth entry in the Mangel series. This series was a trilogy until now, but it was never meant to be. Royston Blake is the kind of character who will never be broken. I know guys in my home town who have been in and out of hospital (mental and general), divorced, in jail, emigrated, deported and all kinds, but still they keep coming back with a new scheme to finally achieve the big shot status they know they deserve. This time, Blakey's scheme is to become a cop, specifically to catch a murderer who has been targeting local women. His role models for this are 80s TV cops Sonny Crockett and Sledge Hammer.

Uh-oh. Not sure lifts are meant to stop suddenly between floors like this. Guess we've got a bit more time. Ignore the flickering lights and creaking sounds above us. Would you like to tell me about other books or stories that you have available?

The previous three books in the series - DEADFOLK (US), BOOZE AND BURN (US) and KING OF THE ROAD (US) - were originally published in the mid-noughties, but they have also just been republished, with new covers and everything (and a new title for one of them, old school Mangel fans will notice). Royston Blake is the one constant that strides through each one, but the town of Mangel keeps changing under his size twelve feet, edging him one step further into dispossession. Deadfolk was shortlisted for the Prix SNCF du Polar, Booze and Burn for a Left Coast Crime Lefty Award, and King of the Road didn't sell enough copies to warrant a fourth (despite some blushingly good reviews), hence the long wait.

Please stop repeatedly pressing the emergency button. The comment about building a ladder of bones to reach the ceiling hatch and get out of here was just blue-skies thinking. So, what are you working on now?

I might come across like a crazed obsessive, but I am nearing the end of Mangel book #5, provisionally titled TAPPED. Saying that, it's four years since I wrote the last one, so there has been other stuff. STAIRWAY TO HELL (US), for example, which is about a small town pub singer who is confronted with evidence that he possesses the transmigrated soul of David Bowie, placed there by Jimmy Page in the 1970s. And GRAVEN IMAGE (US), about a brothel bouncer whose daughter is snatched as payback for a fuck-up.

You like to write crime fiction from the criminal perspective. What is it about this that interests you?

I have tried writing as a policeman or some sort of investigator, but those characters always turn bad on me and reveal themselves as worse than the guys they are chasing. I'm not sure if I can explain this obsession with "differently moralled" protagonists. Possibly it's because I am about as far from black and white as you can get. I can always see both sides of an argument, and it tends to be the accused/perpetrator/transgressor who has the more flexible outlook on things. Cops and other seekers of justice are always dogmatic. I guess I like dogmatic characters too, but only so I can show how absurd they are.

Humour in crime fiction. Get it wrong, and it's awful. You get it very right. What do you think the key is to getting it right (or what, indeed, would make it go very wrong).

Thank you. I don't try to make things funny. I never look for a joke and never think "three pages without a laugh - I'm losing it!" But these moments just suggest themselves to me as I am writing, and I grab them and shine them up. I think a lot of writers shut themselves off from that side. Many crime writers seem to think their work has to be grim and po-faced - "we are dealing with REAL HUMAN TRAGEDIES here, folks. It's NOT FUNNY". I say bollocks, it is funny. Remember at school, when the teacher was being really strict and talking about something of the utmost gravity, and you caught that look from your mate? You have to laugh, don't you? You know you shouldn't - that it's the most inappropriate thing a person could do at that moment - but that only makes it funnier. It makes it the funniest thing in the world.

Is Royston Blake going to play his part in David Cameron's Big Society?

Blakey sees himself as the ultimate pillar of the community, so I guess he will. Maybe he will become a scout leader, and train up a bunch of lads in all the skills he thinks they'll need in life.

In your own writing, what do you think you do well, and what do you wish you could do better?

I think I write first person pretty well, as long as the narrator is psychologically damaged in some way. I wish I could write normal, balanced first person characters better. Then again, fuck it - other people do that well enough. I would also like to write a successful (as in one that I think works really well) longer piece in the third person, a multi-POV kind of thing. I love reading that kind of book when it is good.

Can you remember what made you sit down to write your first book or story?

It was my wife walking in and telling me she was pregnant. I was 27, and had only toyed with writing up to that point, telling myself I could write but never having put it to the test and showing stuff to people. The sudden realisation that I was about to be superceded by a new generation spurred me into action, I guess.

Do you have a book or story that you're very fond of, but you think should get more attention from the world than it has.

By me or by someone else? I'll go for the latter. One of the most original writers in Britain, I think, is Paul Meloy. The only thing he has published in book form is a collection of shorts called ISLINGTON CROCODILES, but it is well worth chasing it down and immersing yourself in his deranged yet utterly lucid and logical world. His tone is pitched somewhere between Hieronymous Bosch and Tommy Cooper, and he is a genuinely underappreciated original.

Print publishing is a doomed but still predatory dinosaur rotting from the feet up. Ebook publishing is the vomiting out of the world's slushpiles onto the market. In the ongoing war of words and hyperbole, where's the happy medium to be found? Where do you think the publishing business is heading over the next few years, and what are you doing to be ready for it?

As a writer, even one who has been published in book form for seven years now, I know very little of the business side of publishing. Everywhere I go I meet other writers who are full of ideas about print and digital and marketing and what have you, and I wonder how the hell they find the head space to bother with all that. My concern is producing the text, and I will continue to do that even if it is not getting widely read. I think the business side of publishing is another set of skills and learning entirely. I'm more into damaged protagonists and innapropriate humour.

What book do you most wish that you had written?

That one I keep going back to but still can't nail. I love books and am well aware that there are brilliant writers out there whose heights I will never reach, but I don't want to write their stuff. I want to drag out the stuff that is in me and arrange it as best I can. And I will keep going back to that unfinished one. Even if it kills me!

You're publishing ebooks now - have you learned anything in that process?

My new publisher - AmazonEncore - is publishing my Mangel novels as ebooks as well as paperback, but personally I have never done this myself. I have a couple of shorter works I look at and think would work well on a Kindle, but I haven't got around to doing anything about it. It's a learning curve, and one that I look at and think "hmm... nah" But what I have gathered from the Amazon editions is that Kindles are popular, and if you price an ebook pretty low, people will give it a shot, even if it looks a bit different. Also you need a good cover.

Do you do much promotion for your books? What do you think is the most effective thing you've done?

A good way to promote your stuff, in this modern world, is to just get out there. Personally I am not in love with personal appearances and events, so try to keep those down, but there is always the web. Websites, blogging, Facebook - all that stuff can be quite fun and get you a profile. And if a fellow blogger like yourself is kind enough to interview me or let me scrawl some words on their space - that's gold dust.

What is it that really pushes your buttons as a reader? (Voice, action, sense of place etc).

I think it is attitude. Or world-view, moral stance... whatever you want to call it. A book I love is TOBACCO ROAD by Erskine Caldwell. The callousness and warped morality of these increasingly desperate sharecroppers is just breathtaking - because it is not what you would expect of an American novel from 1932. If a character gives me a different way of looking at things, even if it's not all good, I love that.

If you could give an aspiring writer one piece of advice, what would it be?

Don't listen to writers who try to give advice. What the hell do they know? Hundreds of years of literature and we think we know what it is. We don't. It's a plastic thing, constantly morphing into new areas and shedding old skins that we once though were so valuable. Maybe you, aspiring writer, have it in you to write a new skin.

If you could tell an aspiring writer to ignore one commonly given piece of advice, what would it be?

"Write what you know."

Are you 'out' as a writer of fiction with work colleagues/family, and if so, what reaction did you get?

All my family and friends know what I do, but I always kept it a secret at work. I only just left my job, but for years I was getting books published and having the odd interview in the papers, and no one at work knew. I worked in IT, and in that world there can be a culture of looking at each others' screens, checking that some actual work is being done. I didn't want people thinking I was writing on the job.

Gibbons or tigers? (NB this question is to help me in compiling my List of People Who Are Wrong).

What, are you nuts? Tigers.

Who has had the most combined success in the twin fields of fiction writing and actual sports (as in doing it, not writing about it)?

Probably Terry Venables. He played top level football for Spurs, Chelsea and others as well as winning a couple of England caps. He managed Spurs, Barcelona, England etc. He wrote the Hazell novels (with Gordon Williams) as PB Yuill.

Meticulous research is both enjoyable and important / what's the point in writing fiction if you can't just make stuff up - discuss.

I say make it up. If you feel a twinge of curiosity about a fact and you can't make it go away, look it up or phone someone, then go back to making stuff up. That world you are creating on the page, it is your world. Sprinkle very sparingly with reality dust. That's what I do anyway.


  1. Excellent interview. He's wrong about the tigers, though.

  2. I am keeping a list of shame in relation to that question, which I will publish at the end of the interviews.

  3. Brilliant interview. Good call with El Tel. I was once invited to a birthday party at his gaff, Scribes, in Kensington.

    As per usual, I never got there, and missed the chance of seeing Dennis Wise twat a taxi driver. So close, and yet ...

  4. Royston Blake--Scout leader. Right. Then, again, there are probably plenty of Mangel youth begging for his guidance.