David HEWSON on writing his series of Roman crime thrillers
Best-selling British crime novelist David Hewson talks to Tan May Lee, Janet Tay and Eric Forbes of Quill magazine about crime mysteries, literary fiction, and what he thinks of the Man Booker Prize and Dan Brown
Photographs by Mark Bothwell
BRITISH CRIME NOVELIST David Hewson was in Kuala Lumpur recently to promote his sixth and latest novel in his best-selling Nic Costa series of novels set in Rome, The Garden of Evil (Macmillan, 2008). We don’t get foreign writers coming to Malaysia often enough, so we jumped at the opportunity to meet the famous author of crime thrillers. We met Hewson at Marche restaurant, The Curve, in Petaling Jaya, as arranged by Pansing, his distributor in Malaysia and Singapore. “Malaysia is such a vibrant market. There are lots of interesting things going on, which is why they decided to send me out here,” the engaging and personable Hewson told us after we were introduced. He flew into the Malaysian capital the night before and had to leave for Singapore the very next day. Yorkshire-born Hewson lives in Canterbury, Kent.
What is the weirdest thing you’ve done in the name of research?
That’s really easy. For the fifth book in the Nic Costa series, The Seventh Sacrament (Macmillan, 2007), I decided to write about underground Rome, which I didn’t even know existed. But I discovered that there is a city beneath Rome, which goes back some 2,500 years with temples, streets and sewers. And it’s closed to the public in most parts because it’s quite dangerous. But whenever someone says to me, “You can’t go somewhere,” I’d want to go there. So I joined the society of nutcases who have the ability to go into these places, and I spent a winter going underground. It’s fascinating. They rang me up one day and said we’re going to the Temple of the Appian Way, and on another day, the Cloaca Maxima, which is the original sewers of Imperial Rome, where they used to kill criminals and drop the bodies down into the sewers. They said, “You did remember to bring your wetsuit, didn’t you?” and at that point, I thought I was merely writing fiction and I don’t need all these.
Do you need special permission to go to these places?
Yes, you do, and you need special keys. They’re very protected. There are a couple of underground places that the public can just turn up and go to but these places are closed. I went to one in the Appian Way, and I never knew it was there, and it was catacombs, with bodies still in them. It has never been opened up to the public. Some of the things down there are entire temples, streets, wall paintings, and there is just so much, and they can’t possibly open it up to the public, and they’ve only uncovered a fraction of it.
What is it about Rome that attracts writers?
There are so many things, really. The first thing about Rome is that it’s a very real city, not like Disneyland with all its artifice. It’s a real modern city with the problems of a modern city, and I find that attractive because I don’t want to write picture-perfect postcards. I think it also means something to everybody. If you’ve never been to Rome, you have this picture in your head of Rome signifying something to do with justice—all my stories are about justice and a kind of yearning for a better society, so I find it appropriate for the setting for the kind of story that I like to write. And also I find that every time I go away from there, I find another three ideas for a book. A book begins just from seeing something or hearing something interesting and that could turn into a part of a story. This book came out of several things, but one of the things was this Caravaggio painting of a private palace, which I’ve seen many times in books and on the internet, but when you see the painting it’s a whole new experience. When you look at it from a couple of inches, it’s a picture of Magdalene—the model was a Roman prostitute, she played Mary Magdalene. When you look close up, you can see a tear in her eye and you have to be four inches away to see that. So Rome’s just full of triggers—little ideas I can just pick up.
What are the reactions of your readers, especially those who have been to these places before and those who haven’t?
Funny really. I think in terms of the real Rome, the places I write about people do go round and have a look at them. That they are faithfully represented. I write fiction but only when it comes to people, they are completely imaginary. But when it comes to descriptions of places, for example, the gallery where the painting was described, that’s how they really are. I had a very odd email from a woman in Holland—the book is very popular in Dutch—“I read all your books and I went to Rome. I have this picture of this city, but the real city isn’t as exciting as the Rome in the book.” You know her imagination has turned things bigger and brighter, I guess. But that’s what books are about—they are about the imagination. And a lot of the places I write about have big sense and big happenings in them but they’re rather small places. I’ve never set anything inside the Coliseum; I like interesting little-known things.
What aspect or aspects of culture are you most interested in in these books?
One of them is history, and Nic Costa, the protagonist, is Roman and he’s very conscious of Roman history. He’s a big fan of Caravaggio and I guess one of the ideas is that what we learn from history is we learn nothing from history. I was very struck by what I read about Roman history. Years ago the society they described were very similar to ours. People 2,000 years ago were not primitive by any means. They just didn’t have the internet or cars, so I think one running thread in the book is the idea that we really don’t learn very much, we often repeat our mistakes, and the book used history and culture as a way of pulling things back up. In this book, it features a man trying to live the way that gentleman would live in Caravaggio’s time. It’s kind of post-Machiavelli and they just didn’t care about anybody. They would do whatever they wanted. I try to use culture as a way to point out something contemporary. I don’t want to write a historical novel. I want to write about the 21st century and try to bring in the historical context to it.
Do you already know what’s next for Nic Costa?
Yes, I do. I write a book a year. I’ve got publication schedules and it’s insane in this industry. By the time you get one book out you have to go on to the next. I’m just finishing number eight, this is number six. It’s on my laptop in my room. By the time I get back to England, I’ve got about 6,000 words to write, and somewhere along the way, I’ll finish that and have a first draft. Yeah, I’ve always got a good picture of where it’s going and the next book will be out in the U.K. in October 2008 so I guess you’ll get it here in time for Christmas.
What is it called?
It’s called Dante’s Numbers (Macmillan, 2008), and it’s quite a playful story, because it’s about a situation that appears to be related to the Alighieri Dante’s The Divine Comedy. It’s quite a different book. Every book in the series is in a different style. The first one is very much Nic Costa’s point of view as a single character, a linear book. The second one brings in many more points of view. This one brings back Costa’s single point of view. It’s very difficult when you’re writing a series—you’ve got to work hard to stay enthused and not just churning out the same thing over and over again. Because Arthur Conan Doyle ended up killing Sherlock Holmes because he got so bored with it. And then brought him back 15 years later. I never want to be in that position. I try to build into the series mechanisms that mean that every book is a new challenge. So they’re all very good ones.
How do you keep yourself motivated as a writer?
It’s a privilege to earn one’s living by writing. I was a journalist for many years and I loved that, but nothing beats what I am doing now. It’s a fantastic opportunity and I really enjoy it. I regard every book as incredibly difficult, a new challenge, a new mountain to climb, but it’s great fun. And the fact that they’re now published in so many different languages around the world is exactly what I was trying to aim for. I was not trying to write something that is set in some eerie crime-story mode that would only appeal to people in England or America, but I was trying to write stories that have some universal appeal. So I don’t have any trouble with motivation. I just try to work on these things, just a list of books I’d like to write because I can only write one at a time.
Is it important to read widely as a novelist?
Yes. When I’m writing, I don’t read much. I read a lot of nonfiction because I do a lot of research for these books.
What are you reading at the moment?
At the moment I’m reading the draft of the current book. But on my reading list next is to re-read Jorge Luis Borges, the Argentinean writer. I don’t read the kind of books I write. For the most part, I try to read things that are very, very different, because if we just read within the same genre, I think your vision is narrowed a little bit. It’s very important for me to read different kinds of writing.
Do you read Man Booker Prize-winning novels?
No. I struggle with some things that are defined as literature. They sometimes seem to miss the point of books, which is about the story. Now, I’m a storyteller. That’s the oldest profession—it goes back to Homer. Storytelling is difficult. I sometimes do three things for my book. First, I want to be original; that’s very important. I don’t want to copy anyone else. Second, I want to be intelligent. I want the reader to like the story. And third, I also want to be popular. I want people to read the book. And literature often doesn’t bother with those things. It’s like I challenge you to read my book, and you have to make the effort. And I’m sure one of the reasons why stories that fall into the crime and mystery genre are so popular today is because they have strong stories and strong characters at their heart, and people relate to these elements. And literature, when it’s pure literature, often is kind of a technical exercise which I find very dull, so I have never bought a Man Booker Prize-winning book. I think, particularly in England, there’s a lot of snobbishness about anything that is popular. If it’s popular, it can’t have any values, so you look at the books that are on the Man Booker Prize list, the ones that win sell a lot of books. Ian McEwan will sell a lot of books. But the other books that are on the Man Booker Prize list may sell nothing. Because they’re very hard to read, so there’s a lot of snobbishness in the literary world in England. This year I’m doing a lot of literary festivals in the U.K., but for years I never got invited because “we don’t have your kind; we want real writers.” There was that snobbishness about, and the more popular you were, the less desirable you were. You get it in terms of just reviews, in the literary sections in the papers they are full of reviews of books people don’t read. They will review an obscure biography of someone you never heard of and it will sell maybe 400 copies. Being popular, intelligent, and original—that’s the most difficult combination. If you want to write a book that forces the readers to read it, that’s not that hard. I read Donna Tartt’s The Little Friend, and it’s a fantastically original book, but it’s terribly overwritten. You can take a pencil and pull chunks of that. The key question as a writer is if I take that page out or that chapter out is the book going to be any less good? If you answer no, then you can just remove it. You take it out, that’s what popular writers do to their work. Tartt’s book is just full of things that are just an exercise in writing. “Look at me, I can write elegantly.” And I don’t feel very comfortable with that. Then I saw the second book and it had a quotation in Greek, which is a language I can’t read let alone speak, and the quotation was not translated, and that was at the beginning of the book. I thought I had to learn Greek to understand the book. It’s that kind of intellectual snobbery about literature that I find uninteresting.
How important do you think literary reviews are?
I don’t think anybody ever knows how important reviews are. A Season for the Dead had the Washington Post saying “Better than The Da Vinci Code” and I thought, “Oh my god.” The review went on to say “Not like The Da Vinci Code. It’s really good.” But that never comes out. That was five, six years ago. That gets quoted all the time—it drive me nuts. Did it sell books? I don’t know. You see some people who bought The Da Vinci Code would’ve read that and thought it’s nothing like The Da Vinci Code. It’s set in Rome. There were no spooky supernatural ridiculous ideas about 2,000-year-old conspiracy. Equally there are some hardened Dan Brown fans who thought it was a bit hard to read because there is a lot of art and history and characterisation that you’re not going to get with Dan Brown. I don’t think anybody really knows. I think after a while, when you have many books coming out, you don’t worry about reviews anymore. They send them to me and I read them and the website people put them up there but I don’t know. It’s always nice to get a good review, but I don’t think anyone really knows what sells books.
You said you publish a book a year. Is your schedule very tight and are you very disciplined in your writing?
Yes, it’s a full-time job.
On average, how long does it take you to write a book?
That’s a wrong question. The right question is, how long does it take me to create a book. Writing is just a part of the process. What I would do is spend three months at home, researching and thinking about what kind of a book it’s going to be, and then I will spend six months writing the first draft, then three months finishing the first draft. And then I’ll deliver it to the publisher.
How do you fit in all the literary festivals, interviews, promotions and travels?
Well, you can take a laptop on the road these days. Also it’s very odd—I’m not very good at writing when I’m not at home, but I find it very easy to edit when I’m somewhere else. There’s no phone call. You get a bit of perspective on your work that you don’t get when you’re sitting in the same place. I always print it all out at the last stage, so I don’t have to read it on the computer. I’ll go somewhere like Calabria and just sit there for weeks and read every line, every word, and try to imagine it, and that works better than if I was at home. So you get used to working on the road.
Do you have to work in the same place when you write?
I have an office at home. I live in the countryside; it’s very quiet. And 90 per cent of the book will be written there, and once I’ve decided what this book is going to be about; these are the characters; this is the theme; I will sit down and write the book. The writing side of it; I’m not saying it’s easy. But once I know what it is I want to write, I don’t find it a problem. It’s working out and it’s shaping the story in the outline. I give a lot of talks to writers’ groups and it’s fascinating because there’re so many people who want to write who have absolutely no idea about the craft. Writing is a craft. It’s like learning to paint—you need your brushes and paint and have the structure thing. And to me a huge part of it is to do with structure and research and focus. One of the key things to me, because all these books are set in Rome, is that I’ll ask myself “What part of Rome?” and will tick a part of Rome and say “this is where I’m going to lock myself in”. This book takes place in a tiny area north of the Pantheon. And I very deliberately said, “And I’m not going to step outside that.” You can walk round the area where most of the things take place in an hour, same streets as they were 600 years ago. And that’s a great discipline, because it means you don’t have all those easy tricks and it gets boring. So once I start writing, I’m on a journey to some kind of conclusion and work along there. It’s like painting or plumbing, or something like that.
Do you think it’s important for you to be there when you write about a foreign place?
I do. I moved to Rome and studied at the language college before I started work on a book. I was a journalist for many years, but I don’t mind inventing people. I can do anything with people, it doesn’t matter. But when it comes to buildings and art, culture and people, I do feel the need to get it right. And I make an effort to try to see things from the eyes of a Roman. The books are now published in Italian, and for me it’s a great compliment because it’s very hard for a foreign writer to set something in a foreign country and have people in that country like it. When I spoke to my Roman publishers, and we came to the subject of Dan Brown, they just went berserk because there was one Dan Brown book, Angels and Demons, where the protagonist goes into this church, walks in one door and comes out of it through another door, and he’s on the other side of the Tiber. He hasn’t even read a map! That kind of thing drives people nuts. But more importantly I just want to get the feel right—the feel of Rome and the attitude of Rome. So I spend a lot of time there. With the amount of time I have spent there, I should probably become a tour guide there.
Do you live in Rome?
No, I don’t. I think it will ruin it if I moved there. It will feel different. But it’s so easy. When I need to go, I’ll just go there, and rent an apartment. And again it’s a kind of perspective, really. If I was living there, it would be different. I would probably feel a sense of duty about the things I do in Rome, but I don’t at the moment. Rome is an incredibly safe, nice city, and I do all sorts of things.
What do you mean by a sense of duty?
I probably feel guilty about some of the things I portray. The book I’m working on has an aspect of terrorism in it. There were events in Rome that will be awful, and I think it’ll be awful if I lived there and I wrote about my home.
Would you never write about England?
I’ve only ever set one book in England, and that was because my previous publisher really wanted one. People always say you must write about what you know, and I think that is terrible advice. If you’re writing about what you know, you can get very lazy, and you make assumptions on the part of the reader, that the reader may not share. And to write these books, I had to move to Rome. I had to learn a different language, I had to create a world from scratch. And that’s what you do when you write a book. You create a world into which you’re inviting the reader. I think when you’re writing something that you have to create, that world is going to be more vivid and enticing. If you were to write something set in England, how would you write something original set in London? I have no idea. From Malaysia you could probably go to London and do that. In fact, one of the best Italian writers wrote a book set in London and it’s doing very well in Italy. Michael Robotham, an Australian writer, lives in Australia, but writes thrillers set in London, and they do very, very well because they’ve got a different perspective and they see a different city. I lived in London for a long time because I worked on the newspapers there, and I found it a very boring, dull, aggressive and nasty city. And England is in such a state at the moment, and if I tried to write about it, it’ll be somewhat controversial.
Do you write nonfiction?
The only thing I’ve done in nonfiction is that I was part of an environmental campaign a couple of years ago, and I wrote an account of what happened there, which is just a little book for the environmental market. But no. And I don’t do any journalism at all anymore. These books really take up my time, what with writing one a year and the promotional schedule. It’s a pretty full-time job. And also you have to focus your energy on things.
Do you have to write a book a year?
You’ve got to do that. If you write a series, you have to do a book a year—but one book a year is the most I can manage. You’ve got to do it and it’s very important to. I’ve been writing now for fourteen years, and I’ve seen authors throughout their career, who think well, you know, I’ll just do a book every two years and that slips to every three years, and I’ve seen people have really big success earlier on, and take a year off, and five years later everybody is saying, “Who?” and you have to do it because readers, book traders and publishers expect it. Also, it’s really good discipline. With all of these books, I’m kind of writing about family and characters here, and every book changes with a separate story. Their relationships are constantly changing. And the more books I write, the more interesting they become. I mean, the first book is very different from the latest one. I’ve grown as a writer just by having to deal with these people and exploring them and their lives, so it’s really good discipline. Writing is real hard work. Most people think, “I want to just do this, it’s dead easy to write a book, and people will give me loads of money.” But it’s nothing like that at all. It’s a real job, and it’s definitely not for the lazy.
The Nic Costa series of Roman crime thrillers comprise the following novels: Dante’s Numbers (October 2008); The Garden of Evil (2008); The Seventh Sacrament (2007); The Lizard’s Bite (2006); The Sacred Cut (2005); The Villa of Mysteries (2004); A Season for the Dead (2003)
An expurgated version of this interview will be published in the July-September 2008 issue of Quill magazine
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