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
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.
We have 5 signed copies of BAIT to give away. Answer
this simple question:
What is Nick's occupation?
Put your answer in the subject line plus Nick. Please
add your mailing address in the main body of the email. Send your answer to the
editor at firstname.lastname@example.org
Bait by Nick Brownlee (Published by Piatkus, £6.99)
Read SHOTS' review
His second book, Burn will be published in July 2009