[Interview] John Baker, author of ‘Death Minus Zero’
Crime writer, John Baker‘s novels include Poet in the Gutter (1995); Death Minus Zero (1996); King of the Streets (1998); Walking with Ghosts (1999); The Chinese Girl (2000); Shooting in the Dark (2001); The Meanest Flood (2003) and White Skin Man (2004).
In addition to writing crime and mystery novels, Baker is a book reviewer for Shots magazine and the Tangled Web. He is also a member of the Murder Squad, a collective of crime writers who use workshops, panels, readings and lectures to promote the genre.
In a recent interview, John Baker spoke about his writing and his concerns as a writer.
What drives the action in your novel, White Skin Man?
White Skin Man is a political novel about racism, those who suffer it, those who perpetrate it, and those who stand and watch. The novel pits ex-con, Stone Lewis and his friends against an intelligent and ruthless white supremacist and a gang of dangerous skinhead no-hopers.
The research for White Skin Man was different to the usual research I put in before I begin to write a novel. The theme was to do with displacement and was especially concerned with asylum seekers. So I contacted the Asylum Seekers’ Support Group in Hull. As a result of this I was introduced to several people who were waiting for the government to decide on their cases. I was invited into the hostels in which they lived and many had stories to tell. So many stories that there was no room for all of them in this novel.
The popular view, in the United Kingdom, is that asylum seekers are scroungers who come to the U.K. to take advantage of the welfare benefits system. How accurate is this?
In my experience it is not accurate at all. Of course, there are cheats and scoundrels in all walks of life and I’m sure they exist among asylum seekers as they exist among republicans and church folk and any other group you care to mention. But generally people seek political asylum because their lives are in danger in their countries of origin.
Governments of all political persuasions in the U.K. and elsewhere have used their abuse of asylum seekers to ‘prove’ that they can be tough on a perceived threat. A mere glance at history is enough to show us that.
When you were writing White Skin Man, what did you find most difficult? What did you enjoy most?
Although White Skin Man remains a crime novel, it has an additional dimension and the writing of it brought me into contact with many people on the run from oppression and poverty. Unfortunately, for many of them, their flight had only brought them into contact with more misunderstanding, more prejudice and poverty, and more violence. I needed to show the reality of this without preaching.
The most enjoyable part of writing any novel, for me, is the creation of characters. This novel was not an exception.
What sets the novel apart from the others that you have written?
It makes no bones about being a political novel. While earlier novels had political content and always included some kind of social comment, White Skin Man is a novel about racism.
Racism is the greatest question of our time. From the grand-style apartheid in South Africa, Hitler and his Jewish question, and the civil-rights movement in the United States of America, down to the millions of acts of petty prejudice that are enacted every day. Underlining this question is the simple formulation: “Can we not live together?”
There are some reviews on my website.
Of the eight novels that you have published so far, which was the most difficult to write? Which was easiest?
The Chinese Girl was the most difficult to write. It was originally conceived as an epistolary novel, but for various reasons that proved to be an impossible way of organizing the material satisfactorily. This meant re-conceiving a form for the novel when it was already half completed. Difficult but interesting.
The easiest to write was the first one, Poet in the Gutter. This was so because I’d never written a novel before and had only the slightest inkling of the problems I would encounter. Also, because I was finally ready to write a novel after many false starts.
It was easy because I was able to set aside anything that got in the way. I was going to write a novel and nothing was going to stop me. I made myself blind to the parts that were not working. There are, in retrospect, many good things about the novel, but if I was to write it now it would be quite different.
What will your next book be about?
My next book, Winged with Death, will not be a crime novel. It is based mainly in Montevideo and its central theme is time. It is a book about revolution, about tango, and about the unfolding of an individual destiny.
There is an extract from the opening chapter on my blog.
Winged with Death has engaged me in more ways than previous novels. It has made me dig deeper and in an artistic sense, it is much more ambitious than anything else I have published.
How much time would you say you spend on writing?
I write every day. Sometimes I only spend a couple of hours at my desk. But I’m there, every morning and something like writing has to occur before I move on to something else. So I spend between 15 and 30 hours a week writing. An approaching deadline might squeeze more from me, but then again, it may not.
I’m driven to write. It is the way I respond to the world. I am aware of myself storing up experiences, thoughts and feelings. At some point I begin, almost unconsciously, to organize this material inside my head.
Later I begin making notes, creating a schemata, sometimes sentences and phrases, sometimes single words. And out of this jumble of ideas, a theme begins to emerge. Often more than one theme. All of this activity is not writing, it is a kind of pre-writing, a chewing over of everything that I’ve collected, a way of beginning to translate it into words.
Eventually I will begin writing, usually because there is nothing else I can do with my thoughts, and the process of writing will expand the thematic content of the material. From there I am concerned almost entirely with language.
In what way does language become a concern?
When one is dealing with a novel, or, I suppose, any work of art, one is dealing not with the real world, but with an event in consciousness. This is what I mean by language.
I am dealing with constraints, as any artist must deal with constraints, because these constraints are an essential part of the structure of my novel. Out of these constraints arise the narrative sequence. And, in addition, I am concerned with rhythm. I read what I have written aloud to ensure that the correct rhythms are there and to show up the lies and falsehoods that have crept into the narrative.
On a larger scale the temporal rhythm contained within the novel as a whole is held together by language and the use of language and as a writer this is the realm in which I live.
Which other challenges do you face when you are writing?
Talent is only a small part of the writing process, especially in the realm of the novel. Writing a novel is a huge commitment in time, it means that you have to be capable of concentrating on your given theme for many months, perhaps years, to the exclusion of almost everything else. This means keeping fit, physically, and keeping strong, mentally. There is an awful lot of space for self-doubt in the time it takes to conceive, write, edit, and complete a novel. This is why there are so many would-be writers out there who never actually manage to complete a manuscript.
But beyond that there is the question of the quality or originality of the novel that I am working on. I’m always looking for a miracle. I want my present project to succeed where the previous ones failed. I’m not talking about other people’s perceptions here, not how the book was received by the critics or the public, but what I think about it. I don’t want to rewrite something I’ve already written. I want it to be something that the world has never seen before. I want it to be so good that it can walk and talk and have babies.
How do you deal with these problems?
By keeping the faith. By enormous and continual efforts of the will. By coming at each obstacle from every possible direction. By listening.
Writing, like most things, gets better through practice.
In the writing that you are doing, who would you say has influenced you the most?
I had a great English teacher when I was around ten years old and I believe it was him who lit the flame. He was passionate about the language and particularly about English writers. He encouraged my own writing and the books that I chose to read. He made my judgments feel valid, whereas most of my teachers made me feel as though I were invisible.
My mother was an avid reader and she taught me to read at an early age. We went to the library together every week. I remember reading the novels of Enid Blyton, the Billy Bunter books, the series of Biggles books, Just William and the other William books. I also read weekly comics, The Beano and Dandy, the Hotspur and later the Marvel comics and other horror comics.
I haven’t read any of these since that time and have no intention of doing so. I suppose they stimulated my imagination and gave me some notion of how exciting written narrative can be. They also hooked me into the need for story. I read widely, classic, contemporary novels, newspapers, short stories, poetry.
The main influences during my teens would include the Americans, Hemingway, Fitzgerald and Faulkner. At around the same time I was reading Zola and Dostoevski and Thomas Hardy. Later there was Knut Hamsun, Carson McCullers, Katherine Mansfield, and more recently, Carol Shields and Sylvia Plath.
If you’re hankering after one it would be Hamsun because, he, more than any of the others, spoke directly to me. I responded to him in a more direct way, as if we were friends who had shared a unique view of the world. In retrospect I can see that this was all confined to his first four books. I was not impressed by his later works.
How have your personal experiences influenced your writing?
Absolutely. One can only really write about what one knows.
The direction of one’s writing is concerned with identity and identity as far as art is concerned is to do with style. Style is the writer, it is what makes the writer a writer and what makes the writer the kind of writer that he, or she, is.
I don’t think it is possible to distinguish between personal experience and literary experience. What happened in my ‘real’ life and what happened in my imagination are entirely indistinguishable by now. I often smile when people tell me that they don’t read novels because they only want to read about facts. There is nothing you could write in a novel that hasn’t already happened in the so-called real world.