Nick Brownlee Grilled For Shots




For 20 years journalist NICK BROWNLEE has been used to posing tough questions. So when we asked him to write about his debut novel Bait, he did it the only way he knows how Ė by giving himself a grilling.



The opening scene of Bait features a character being gutted alive on a fishing boat. Was it always in your mind to start the book with such a gory scene?


I have been a journalist for the best part of 20 years, much of that time writing stories for tabloid newspapers. The first lesson you are taught is that you must grab the readerís attention with the very first paragraph, because by the third they will have lost interest in the story. Itís the same with commercial fiction Ė especially if you are an unknown author. In order to get published, Bait had to leap out of an agentís slush pile and then make a publisher look twice. I needed an opening that would catch the eye. Hopefully it will have the same effect on the casual reader.


Is that why you write such short chapters?


I am from the MTV generation. We have the attention span of a gnat Ė and not just when it comes to reading. The average length of a movie or TV scene has to be about 10 seconds. After that, we start getting fidgety. I know Ė itís pathetic! I tried to write the kind of book that would keep me interested if I was reading it. My philosophy is always ďwhatís the point of dragging it out the action if youíve said everything that needs to be said?Ē.  Mind you thereís short and thereís James Patterson. His chapters are quite often no more than 200 words, and itís done him no harm!


Why did you choose Kenya for the setting of your novel?


Africa is so very different from Europe in almost every way, and Kenya sums it up perfectly. Here is a melting pot of incredible poverty and wealth, privilege and suffering, modern advancement and primitive superstition. Itís a place where the ďnormalĒ rules donít exist. For a writer that is incredibly liberating, and for a crime writer doubly so.


What does it offer the crime writer that Britain doesnít?


Crocodiles! Always handy for disposing of bodies. Seriously, though, modern crime fiction is increasingly straitjacketed by the technological leaps and bounds in crime detection. I always wanted to write about an old school copper who solved murders using legwork and powers of deduction, and bad guys who committed crimes without worrying about leaving fibres or hair follicles at the scene. But how do you make characters like that realistic in a world of increasing CCTV surveillance and DNA profiling? The writers of Life on Mars solved the conundrum by sending a modern detective back to the 1970s, and at one stage I was so desperate I started writing a crime novel set in the 18th century! Then I went to Kenya for a friendís wedding and suddenly it all clicked into place. Here was a country where both the good and the bad guys were still on the same level playing field. It really was like stepping back in time.



What was the Eureka moment for you in Kenya?


I was in the back of a taxi stuck in a traffic jam on the Mombasa-Malindi highway, which is the equivalent of a single carriageway A-road in England. After a while we got to the cause of the hold-up: someone had been run over and killed by a lorry. It seemed that neither Malindi nor Mombasa police could decide in whose jurisdiction the body lay, so it was just lying there in the middle of the road.  Somebody had taken the time to put a banana leaf over its face out of respect, but otherwise the traffic was just swerving round. The taxi driver just shrugged and said: ďLife is cheap in KenyaĒ. He was right Ė but what he meant was, ďlife is cheap if you are poorĒ.


And if you are rich?


Just before my last visit earlier this year, a wealthy white ex-pat was shot dead in a bungled robbery. Rather than trust the local police, his friends in the community told me how they clubbed together to bring fly in a private security team, complete with sniffer dogs, to track down the killers. Needless to say, they caught the culprits.



Your Kenyan detective, D.I. Daniel Jouma, is teamed up with an ex-pat fishing boat skipper, Jake Moore, from England. Why such an unorthodox crime-busting team?


I donít think they are particularly unorthodox. A double act has to balance each other. Jouma is the cerebral puzzle-solver, Jake is there to do the legwork and get involved in the punch-ups. Together, whether by accident or design, they combine to get the job done.


Why did you decide to give Jake a background as a detective in the Met?


For the simple reason that I needed some sort of common ground on which he and Jouma could meet and subsequently work together. Jake, despite his best intentions, cannot entirely shake off his past life. Jouma, despite his misgivings, realises that he needs a man of Jakeís experience on his side. Youíll never see the two men shake hands and agree on a permanent working arrangement. In Bait, and in the sequel Burn (published by Piatkus in July 2009), itís circumstances that conspire to bring them together.


Are they based on anyone you know? Jake, like you, hails originally from north-east EnglandÖ


Believe me, if Iíd based Jake on myself I would have made sure to make him look like George Clooney! No Ė they are both creations of my imagination, although obviously Iíve pinched bits and pieces from experience to make up their back stories. Itís the secondary characters who tend to be plucked from real life. Harry Philliskirk, Jakeís business partner, is very much modelled on a friend of mine who opted out of the rat race to run a boat business in the Far East.


Do you have a set working regime when it comes to writing your books?


I have a journalistic addiction to deadlines. My editor thinks Iím mad when I demand she gives me a date for the finished draft, but I cannot function otherwise. In the final couple of weeks Iíll be writing hell-for-leather, night and day. I love it, and I always gasp when I hear about whey-faced writers who go through agonies to produce 300 words a day. Why donít they take up something they enjoy?


What next for Jake and Jouma Ė and Nick Brownlee?


That very much depends on how the first two books perform, and whether Iím commissioned to write any more! All being well Iíd like to keep Jake and Jouma going as long as people want to read about them. Kenya is a big country and I donít imagine Iíll run short of stories anytime soon. I also have a couple of ideas for stand-alone novels which Iíd like to pursue at some stage. But then I do have a drawer which is rather full of half-finished novels. That, I suppose, is the one major advantage of being rejected for so long.



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Bait by Nick Brownlee



Bait by Nick Brownlee (Published by Piatkus, £6.99)


Read SHOTS' review


His second book, Burn will be published in July 2009





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