CWA Ian Fleming Steel Dagger Shortlist 2019 – Interview with Tim Willocks

In preparation for the announcement of the winner of the CWA Ian Fleming Steel Dagger Award later this month, we will interview all the shortlisted authors. This week we talk to Tim Willocks about his shortlisted book, Memo From Turner.

How does it feel to be on the shortlist for the CWA Ian Fleming Steel Dagger?

I’m honoured, surprised, and of course delighted. I never consider my novels to be in the running for prizes because of their, or my, preoccupation with extreme violence. But Ian Fleming pushed those boundaries in his day so no such award would be so gratifying as the CWA Steel Dagger.

If you could summarise Memo From Turner in ten words, what would you say?

Let justice be done though the heavens fall.

What’s your writing process – do you jump straight in, or plan and plot first?

My process is a bit of a mystery to me, unfortunately. I can’t control it as efficiently as I would like. I need some kind of plan to jump into – characters, location, a premise – but it rarely extends beyond the set-up. If it does, the characters always change the plan en route, often radically. It’s hard to really know or care about a character until he or she has come alive in the writing, and until that happens, I can’t know what they’re going to feel and do. If at that point I strap them into the straitjacket of a preordained plot, they die. Beyond the set-up situation, I get out of the way and let the characters dictate the plot. The set-up usually implies some final confrontation but I don’t seek the details until I get there. I prefer the adventure of not really knowing where I’m going. Since most of us are working variations on classic themes (the 8 archetypal stories, the 36, or whatever the number is), it’s the details – the telling details – that make or break any novel. The hardest part of the process is finding characters and a set-up that excite me enough to start writing. Until I find that, I can’t write at all.

Which thriller writers do you most admire?

Of the old guard who first inspired me, Mickey Spillane still stands tall for his crazed energy, disreputable convictions and relentless attack. Ted Lewis was great. Jim Thompson. Richard Stark. Can I include Sven Hassel? No one can escape Chandler. ‘Memo From Turner’ is certainly indebted to Hammett’s ‘Red Harvest’, which has never been bettered. David Morrell’s ‘First Blood’ remains a benchmark. Gillian Flynn is terrific. The contemporary writer I most admire in any genre is James Ellroy, for his radical experiments with language and form, his fearless disregard for civilized values, and for his extravagant vision of a society that is poisonous to its core.

What makes a killer thriller?

Culturally speaking the thriller has replaced the great social novel of the 19th Century. It’s here, in the subtext and backcloth of the thriller, that literature examines ‘the way we live now’. So a great thriller has to offer something more than the thrills, something to care about while you’re reading and to think about after you’ve finished. Because a novel contains so many diverse elements, that ‘something’ can be depth and originality of characters, the social or political fresco, the mysterious matter of voice or style, or the experience of being dragged somewhere you couldn’t have imagined and never expected to go, some place of visceral emotion and human truth. And preferably all of these. When that happens, it’s always a miracle. No one, not even the best novelists, can pull it off every time.

The winner of the 2019 CWA Ian Fleming Steel Dagger will be announced on 24th October.  The other shortlisted authors are Luke Jennings, Holly Watt, Dan Fesperman, Stephen Mack Jones and Megan Abbott.  Look out for the next instalment from the shortlisted authors next week.Memo From Turner

Photo of Tim Willocks by Lorenzo Moscia.