Saturday, 16 July 2011

Writers Talk About Writing - Ray Banks

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

Aaaand, I'm back in the land of the living. Time for the next in the series of interviews with authors, and this one's another cracker.

Ray Banks is the author of the Cal Innes novels, the bitter swansong of which - Beast of Burden - is out in the US this August (Amazon UK
paperback). He lives in Edinburgh and online at He knows many swear words and isn't afraid to use them.

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.

But I've got two of them. Shit, okay. Gun (Amazon US | UK) is a novella about a young lad called Richie, just out of the YOI, who has to pick up a converted air pistol for a one-legged drug dealer called Goose (and you'll know why he needs a new gun if

you've been reading Wolf Tickets) [Review of Gun coming up soon on this blog - Ed.]. Richie gets mugged and loses the gun, and he has to get it back. It's currently priced nice and low at Amazon -- FUCK ME WHAT WAS THAT NOISE?

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?

Alright. It’s just I’m not that good in confined spaces. Beast of Burden is the other book coming out in August in the States. That's the last and best of the Innes books. I may well be looking at bringing out more digital stuff, too. Seriously, though, we're not supposed to be locked in like this, are we? I mean, fuck's sake, how long's it been now?

And what are you wittering on about? Ladder of what?

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?

Okay, but if you keep on with “blue-skies thinking” like that, I’ll punt you in your “low-hanging fruit”. I've currently got a novel out doing the rounds called Dead Money, which long-time readers will recognise as a pimped-up version of The Big Blind. The serialised novel in Needle magazine - Wolf Tickets - comes to an end in their next issue and I’ve just sent the final third. I'm currently writing a semi-sequel to Dead Money called Double Down, which is the casino robbery novel I've been meaning to write for ages. I'm also dicking around with a couple of screenplays and outlining a follow-up to Wolf Tickets called Trouble’s Braids.

The private eye novel has a long and glorious history, is a long history. Were you concerned about carving out your own, original take on the genre, and how did you go about it?

I was absolutely concerned with doing something new – otherwise what’s the point in doing it? And I thought I’d write something counter to what I saw as a proliferation of Chandler-lite PI fiction that dominated the sub-genre in the UK. So I set out to place the Innes series in a city that wasn’t London, write a protagonist who wasn’t some tarnished knight errant and whose “code” was closer to that of a noir protagonist than a typical PI, and otherwise have a bit of a play with what I thought were the more untenable tropes. It was an incredibly arrogant and destructive way of going about it, but I was young and stupid.

You've spoken before about the need for emotional honesty in fiction. Speak some more. What do you mean by that, and why's it important to you in your work? And the flipside - what makes a book emotionally dishonest?

Emotional honesty comes from creating characters that are recognisably human. This means rounding them out, giving them an internal logic that we can understand and empathise with, giving them flaws, spending a bit of time trying to breathe a bit of life into them. The characters should be able to stand and walk around without a plot propping them up. But a book becomes emotionally dishonest when it sacrifices character logic and characterization to further the plot. It’s the main reason why I think a lot of thrillers read like puppet shows.

What book has impressed you most in the last year, and why?

I think the most recent novellas from Allan Guthrie (Bye Bye Baby - Amazon US | UK) and Tom Piccirilli (Every Shallow Cut - Amazon US | UK) have been outstanding, but the book that really nailed for me isn’t out until October. Christa Faust’s Choke Hold (pre-orders: US | UK) is a killer sequel to Money Shot (US | UK), and Faust is one of those authors I have to read twice in quick succession – first time to enjoy, second time to learn. She’s got that emotional honesty we were talking about, but she also keeps her plots bombing along. Superior stuff.

The Fairy Noirmother visits you in the night and grants you one wish - if you could change or influence crime fiction in one way, what would it be?

I would give the genre a ten -year break from police procedurals. Not an outright ban, you understand – I don’t want to be a fascist about it. And I’m aware that a break like that would put a momentary kibosh on one of my favourite writers, Mr Stuart MacBride. But I’m sure he’d be able to put his pen to work on other stuff without too much of a problem. Just like the other authors – Rankin, Ellroy, Wambaugh – who’ve nailed the subgenre, yon Beardy has “sick writin’ skillz”, as I believe the urban youth are wont to say. Ahem.

But a break from police procedurals could only be a good thing. They’ve choked the genre for a good long while now, and they appear to be the subgenre of choice for debut novelists with fuck all to say for themselves. Personally, I don’t understand why anyone would want to write a book where the most interesting thing about the story has already happened, but there you go.

You've never had any cat detectives in your books. Plan on putting this right any time?

Hey, never say never. I did have a go at a cosy a few years ago, especially for The Divine Donna M and her LCC panel. I dare say with a little encouragement (i.e. sweet, sweet moolah), I could whip this up into something frothy:

"Were you to enquire as to the identity of the most famous and well-respected resident of the leafy and lazy village of Little Tittington, you would undoubtedly be introduced to the rotund yet dainty figure of Francesca Muldoon. Francesca moved with a speed and gusto that belied her ample size, at once a champion bee keeper, author of countless swooning historical romances, accomplished gardener (with a fine nose for the lethal properties of those harmless-looking herbs), amateur sleuth, award-winning cat breeder (indeed, her prize feline Eustace Monkeysharples III had proven a fine amateur sleuth himself, having solved single-pawed the notorious Catnip Murders as well as taking Best In Show five years running) and purveyor of mouth-watering banana and walnut muffins. And yet, on this sleepy Little Tittington afternoon, there was murder in the air, as well as the smell of burning confectionery."

It’s a bit dense, but I was only allowed one paragraph.

[That's disturbingly right. I suspect it is part of a highly-polished Monkeysharples trilogy that Ray occasionally and reluctantly tears himself away from to write the noir stuff - Ed.]

You've published a novel, the excellently-titled 'Wolf Tickets', as a serial in Needle magazine. Given the rise in electronic publishing, do you think that serial publication might make a bit of comeback?

Technically it’s a serialised novel more than a serial, because it existed as a book before we put it out there, but it was re-written specifically with a three-part publication in mind. And the more I look back at Wolf Tickets, the more I have to thank the Needle crew for taking it on, because it’s probably the most violent, profane and slangy book I’ve written thus far. It’s just a thug of a novel, and I know it wouldn’t see the light of day otherwise. Which would be a shame, considering the kind of feedback I’ve had.

E-publishing could well mean resurgence in serial fiction. I know it’s meant resurgence in series fiction, and you could argue that those books are short enough that they could be classed as serials. I’m not sure I’d do it, though. To me, serials always look better in print, in amongst a bunch of short stories. But then I’m old-fashioned, which is why I’m wearing this ruff.

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.

GBH, by Ted Lewis. It’s out of print, along with pretty much everything Lewis wrote, but it bloody well shouldn’t be. Jack’s Return Home (or Get Carter) gets all the hype – and it’s a hell of a novel, much better than the film – but GBH is something else entirely. I wrote about it for The Rap Sheet, and I’d heartily recommend tracking down a copy if you can. In the meantime, I’ll keep mentioning it in the hopes that there’s a reprint somewhere down the line. I’d gladly pay out of my own pocket, if the estate want to give me a price …

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?

If I had to dust off the Mystic Meg bob-cut, I’d say that print publishing is far from doomed. I do think it’ll be forced into shedding some of the bloat that’s made it slow over the last few decades, though. I see the trade paperback becoming a thing of the past, which can only be a good thing, and the hardback becoming a thing to cherish and collect again. I can even see a return to separate publishers for different editions – hardback, paperback and electronic – if I squint hard enough.

With eBooks, the books are going to get shorter – closer to your original pulp novels of 40-60k – and there’ll be a bigger market for niche genres. I think we’ll also see a rise in e-publishers who can combine the best of traditional publishing services like editing, proofing and design with sound marketing and social media strategies, and that’ll more than likely skim the cream from the self-pubbers who are better writers than they are self-promoters. Ultimately, though, the whole business will have account for their royalty percentage, and that can only mean a better deal for authors.

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

Don't read anything contemporary. There are more fundamental lessons to be learned in the work of writers from the 30s than you’ll ever get from contemporary fiction. Plus, if you’re going to have an influence, it’s better coming from the original than some third-generation copy.

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

“Write what you know.” Chances are, what you know isn’t interesting and there’s no sense in restricting yourself right off the bat.

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

That's a bloody good question. I’m still in the closet when it comes to colleagues at the day job, and have been for a good long while now. My family know, of course, but workmate reactions have been divisive enough in the past for me to keep this whole writing thing to myself. Some people were impressed, others didn’t really give a shit, and some actively held it against me. And life’s too short to be dealing with that on a daily basis. I’ve had a few close calls with reviews popping up here and there. Lucky for me, I look and act borderline illiterate, so people don’t tend to connect the names.

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

As much as I want to say tigers, I think gibbons edge ‘em out. They’re this close to having precision grip, they’re organised, they’re agile, they can literally leap two-storey buildings in a single bound, they can dislocate their wrists at will and they’re known as lesser apes, so they’ve got something to prove. A tiger, you can kick in the face. Try doing that to a pack of determined gibbons with flick knives.

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

Research is your alibi, so you just need the details to ring true. If the details are correct, then the big lie is easier to sell. Besides, too much research results in infodumps and self-importance.


  1. I've been thinking about what you said about only reading old books, so I've cancelled my order for Gun and got Beowulf, instead.