Interview with author Stuart Neville
Stuart Neville is the author of The Twelve, scheduled for European release in a couple of days and for US release in October as The Ghosts of Belfast. This debut novel follows a paramilitary assassin from The Troubles goaded by the ghosts of his victims into committing revenge killings. During the course of the story, we learn in shuddering detail what Fegan did to deserve such a fate, as well as what he must do to find the bloody sort of peace only a killer can achieve.
Because Stuart and I are friends, we engaged in more of a conversation than a formal interview. Stuart lives in Northern Ireland. He speaks softly enough I have to lean into the phone, and he dedicated his book to his mother.
He started our talk with a discussion of writing The Twelve.
The Twelve started as a short story. I woke up one morning with the image of a man sitting drinking in a bar, surrounded by all the people he'd killed. I started writing it on my mobile phone's word processor, and finished it later that day. It was called "Followers". It got a great response at the online critique group I frequented at the time, but I didn't submit it anywhere. I found the idea wouldn't leave me alone, and about a month later I sat down to turn it into a novel. Roughly ten weeks later, I had a first draft. It was a very fast process. With the help of some excellent beta readers, you included, I polished it and rewrote it over the course of the next nine months or so.
I didn't query agents very widely because I wasn't sure how to pitch it, seeing as it was somewhere in that gray area between thriller and horror. It took my agent, Nat Sobel, to help me focus on what the book really was.
You must have gotten a cramp in your thumb from typing a story on your phone!
Tell us about Nat and how he found you.
I wrote another short story featuring The Twelve's protagonist, Gerry Fegan, just to revisit him for a little while. After some good critique and polishing, I let the story lie for about six months. Then one Sunday afternoon, just on a whim, I submitted it to Thuglit.com, the crime fiction zine. I got an email on my birthday telling me it had been accepted and would appear in the February issue. I was delighted and thought the t-shirt would be all that came of it. I was working late one evening in my office a couple of weeks after the story appeared, when I got an email from a man called Nat Sobel. The name was familiar, and as I read the email, I realised why. He was not only a top literary agent, he also represented my favourite author, James Ellroy. Nat said he'd seen my story in Thuglit and would I send him the novel mentioned in the bio. To my shock, he offered me representation shortly after receiving the manuscript.
What is working with him like and how did it affect your approach to your book?
Nat is a very hands-on agent, and he loves to nurture new talent. At the same time, he's tough, and very hard to please. If he doesn't think you're giving your best work, he isn't shy about saying so. I often advise hopefuls to get critique for exactly this reason; if you're lucky enough to get the chance to work with a great agent, you can't be precious about your writing. I worked on revisions for another three months or so before Nat felt the novel was ready to go out on submission.
Speaking of Ellroy, every time I see his quote on the front of your ARC "This is some guy to watch out for in a dark alley," it cracks me up.
Whether he's talking about you or Fegan, it is sometimes tough to connect you to the characters you write. They're just so nasty and you're so decent. For instance, all your talk about friendships between writers. You risked getting...what was the term you just used on your blog? Wussy? Wouldn't want that. So, what's something about writing you don't like?
At the moment, it's the writing itself, to be honest. I'm finding book two to be a bit of a slog, whereas the first book just kind of came out in one big rush. I've spoken to a few more experienced novelists over the last couple of months, and they've told me book two is the toughest. As a couple of people have put it, you have your whole life to write book one, then just a few months to write the next. Not that I'm complaining, it's not like I'm shoveling coal all day long. I just need to keep my head down and get on with it.
I've so been there - especially when writing short stories. They've paved the road to your novel writing career, though. You've even released an accompanying volume for free download on your website cleverly entitled The Six in which you say embarrassing things about me. (There, that should get readers to go seek it out if the idea of FREE doesn't.) What attracts you to short fiction?
I've always liked reading short stories, though funnily enough, I hadn't written one since I was at school until I wrote the story that wound up in Electric Spec. But since then I've found I like the quick fix of a short story. My shorts do tend to be short, though; the longest I've written is around 4000 words, I think. For me it's either short, or it's not. I can't do a long short, if that makes sense, in the way someone like Stephen King or James Ellroy can. If I can't get the story wrapped up with ten to twenty pages, then it's not going to work. I recently abandoned a story whose premise I loved simply because I couldn't make it short enough. I may revisit it as a novella.
One of the things I like about short stories is how they can act as springboards to bigger ideas. The Twelve started life as a short story, for instance, and a story that appears in the free collection - "The Craftsman" - has given me inspiration for a novel, which I'm just starting to explore.
I find it interesting to think of short stories as springboards for books. Of course, ideas come from everywhere, right? One of my biggest inspirations for stories has been music. I wonder if it has been for you, too, since you're a musician. How does your experience with music inform your writing and your life as a writer?
Music kind of interrupted my ambitions of being a writer. When I was kid, I wanted to write books. But along came puberty, and guitars seemed more fun. So the plan was then to become a rock star, and once I got too old for that, start writing books. So, in a round about way, it kind of worked out - except I skipped the becoming a rock star bit! A surprising number of authors are musicians, or are heavily into music. Take Stephen King, for example. I think writers' and musicians' brains are wired in a similar way. There's a similar blend of the mechanical and the intuitive in both areas.
In a more practical sense, I always have a guitar to hand when I write. I pick one up and noodle on it to help me think, the same way most people doodle with a pen and paper.
So will you play at your release party? Some guitar riffs would be cool.
I'm afraid not, unless John Connolly fancies doing a duet! I will be filming some highlights from the evening, though, and you never know - I might supply some backing music.
Didn't you write the music for your trailer?
I did. Actually, now that you mention it, I wrote that music while the novel's first draft was nearing completion. The actual title on my computer is "Fegan's Theme." Funny you should point that out - such a direct relationship between the character and a piece of music hadn't really occurred to me. Actually, I spent a few years trying to break into composing music for film. I got a little bit of work, but it's a tough business. I guess something of that experience must have stuck with me. Maybe I'll try writing themes for the characters in the new book...
Okay, you walked right into that one. What's the next book about?
The sequel, the title of which I can almost exclusively reveal is Collusion, picks up a few months after The Twelve left off, and it focuses on a cover-up of the events of the first book. Some characters will return, but the main protagonist will be different. It'll be quite a different book, with a less linear plot, and more characters to keep track of. I'm especially happy with the chief villain. He's a seriously nasty piece of work, and great fun to write. He swears a lot, for one thing. He's a killer, but with no finesse. He's not one of the more refined baddies we've gotten used to in recent fiction. He's just out-and-out brute force, too primitive to be called evil, but he's also a family man. You'll like him, I think.
No doubt I will.
It sounds as if you're stretching the contrast between brutality and humanity so prevalent in The Twelve. If your characters are any indication, you seem to accept brutality as part of the human condition, and have a knack at portraying such characters without prejudice. From this American's standpoint, The Twelve feels foreign and fresh to me because violence is so often portrayed in American fiction and film in one of two fashions: gladiators at the Coliseum or to reinforce a moral message. How do you think your treatment of evil and brutality influenced the sale of your book at home and abroad?
I enjoy exploring the grey areas of life, rather than the absolutes. I don't judge characters, and that's a lesson I've taken primarily from James Ellroy. They are who they are, and they act as they will within the fictional world. Having said that, there is a limit to how much a reader will tolerate. You can stretch empathy to breaking point. That was one of the most important aspects my agent guided me on. Nat was keen that Fegan should be as human as possible, given his past and current actions. We spent a lot of time building up his back story and his relationships with other people so that the reader could relate to him as a man first, and a killer second.
There was still an issue with some editors, though. A few, particularly in America, found the character hard to take. And the blurring of genre lines was an issue too. I think American publishers think in terms of stricter genre boundaries than Europeans do. More than one editor complained it was too literary to be a thriller, and too thrilling to be literary. But I think perhaps they underestimate the reader's capacity to stretch their imagination.
I'm delighted with how things have turned out. In the UK, I have the best of both worlds, in that I'm with a smaller imprint within a massive company, so I have the personal attention of a dedicated team coupled with the clout of Random House. In the US, I'm with a smaller independent publisher, but they have proved to be anything but small when it comes to getting behind the book. I've spoken with a few Irish authors who have been picked up by majors in America only to find their books more or less cast to the wind. One author friend called it 'fishing' - just throwing the book out there to see if anything bites. Soho, on the other hand, are passionate about getting the book out there, even as far as organising an American tour for October.
And I'm especially excited for your tour because you and I get to have a visit and even attend a convention together with the rest of Electric Spec's staff. Maybe if we're really lucky, you'll bring along a guitar.
Readers, please visit Stuart's website to download The Six, for more information on The Twelve, and his forthcoming appearances.