SHEENAGH: Last time we had a natter, you were still a serving policeman alongside writing novels about police procedure. Now, I believe, you and the force have parted company and you're living in Portugal, making your living through various kinds of writing, not just fiction but freelance jobs like online travel guides? How's that working out?
MIKE: Yes, I quit in 2015, but I’d been on a ‘career break’ since 2011 so – coupled with the move abroad – I was pretty far removed from all things police work-related. My life now is novels and freelancing, which is lovely most of the time but has led to some hairy moments. Until resigning from the Five-Oh I’d spent my entire working life on a guaranteed monthly salary so it took some – often painful – adjustment. At one point a year or so back we had eighteen Euros to our name, a hefty amount of unexpected bills to pay, and no more paydays on the horizon. Much sleep was lost. But you learn, and when the biggish chunks of money come in you discipline yourself not to spend all the cash on Blu-rays and booze, because, y’know, you have to feed the kids every now and again or they complain. It’s funny, I frequently have to disabuse people – especially family – of the notion that my life is spent bronzing my nipples on a beach in the Algarve, while occasionally typing a bit of crap for my publisher. We live in the mountains of central Portugal in a house that needs serious fixing up and where the winters are brutal. Both my wife and I work full time, often seven days a week and for ten to twelve hours a day. I think I sunbathed for an hour about two years back. But that’s the life of a freelancer, I suppose. We have to do it if we want to stay here, because neither of us has any desire to return to the UK – look at what’s going on there.
SHEENAGH: I am, I am... and wondering whether "what's going on here" is liable to reflect in your future books at all?
MIKE: The whole thing is just too depressing to write about, to be frank. I’d just point everyone in the direction of P D James’ The Children of Men. Or even Cuaron’s film adaptation; it stands up just as well. I worry that at some point in the not-too-distant future we will come to regard that novel – certainly the Omega section with its depiction of societal breakdown and state barbarity – as scarily prescient. Warden May, anyone?
SHEENAGH: We've mentioned that you are now an émigré, like several other writers I've interviewed – Barbara Marsh, Frank Dullaghan, Ruth Lacey. Has this affected your writing at all? So far, your books have all still been set in South Wales. Are you finding it harder to write about Wales now you don't live there, or does distance actually clarify vision?
MIKE: It’s not the country, or whatever Welsh town or city the story is based in, that I have difficulty with now because I know Cardiff inside and out, and I have almost photographic memories of South Wales. It’s the police procedure and legislation I struggle with. As I’ve mentioned, it’s been a good while since I was a copper and it’s frightening how much has changed and what I’ve forgotten. I wanted to forget at first, I hated the job and was so happy to leave. But now it’s needs must for work, so I’m frequently on social media badgering old colleagues about stuff like firearms policy and radio etiquette. It’s one of my pet hates in crime fiction: getting the basics wrong, the plod vernacular and policies and techniques. So I do fret about that a little now. I’m lucky that my wife was a much better copper than me and has managed to retain an awful lot of information so I usually go whining to her first.
SHEENAGH: Are you liable to start setting books in Portugal?
MIKE: Lisbon features in one or two chapters in Ash and Bones, but I’m not sure if I’d want to have Portugal as the backdrop to an entire novel, certainly if they continue to be crime-related. I know the country has its problems but I don’t really want to know too much about its nasty side. After two decades as a cop I’ve had my fill of nastiness, thanks very much. That ruined Cardiff for me for many years, I had a real love/hate relationship with the place until recently because I’d seen some terrible things that skewed my perception of the capital and its people. I can separate it now, and see the good in the city while still writing about fictional bad things going on there. As for Portugal, perhaps if the local farming community are uncovered as a Europe-wide goat-smuggling ring I’ll write about it. Until then: probably not.
SHEENAGH: Your first two novels were police-procedural, but Ash and Bones was more a crime novel, though still very much informed by your police background, and I think the new one is too? What brought about the change?
MIKE: Honestly? Simple economics. Other than Booker winners, big names like McEwan and the odd fluke that nobody predicted would go stratospheric, literary novels don’t sell that many copies. My first two were well-received, and Pocket Notebook did quite well for a debut that was difficult to classify as it had a police milieu but wasn’t crime. Then in 2014 my then-publisher and I parted ways, and I was a little bit lost for a while. This was after I moved to Portugal so I had to have a serious rethink about how I was going to earn a living. I was also being nudged, ever so gently, towards writing something more commercial (that dirty word). It was either do that or give up novel-writing completely, which I seriously considered for a few dark months as I wasn’t enjoying being part of the business at all. In the end I got my act together and dug out an old character who’d already featured in three unpublished novels, and started writing. That got me a deal with the guys at Bonnier, meaning I could feed those pesky kids for a couple more years, at least until they’re old enough for me to put them in the army. And I’m still writing the standalones, they keep me from finally losing the last of my marbles.
SHEENAGH: Your protagonist Will managed to survive Ash and Bones and looks like being a fixture. This was also a bit of a change, as the protagonists of your first two ended up dead or totally dispirited… why did you decide on an ongoing character?
MIKE: I refer you to my last answer. A series is where it’s at, nowadays. Television, film and publishing are all desperately looking for the next big returning series or character. That ‘brand’, that ‘franchise’. I know some of this will be anathema to many writers I know, but thems the facts. You might have a beautifully written, powerfully moving literary novel but it won’t sell anywhere near as many copies as a pulpy, twisty thriller – probably with ‘girl’ in the title – and a female protagonist who has a drink problem/amnesia/a double life/insert affliction du jour here. Or as many copies as a crime series. I remember going to London for a meeting with a pretty powerful TV production company who were thinking of optioning my second novel, Ugly Bus. Once the coffee and small talk was out of the way, the conversation quickly turned to how the characters could be developed so they’d all return in a second, third or even fourth series. When I said they’d all end up in prison so you’d have no second series, I was thanked for my time and shown the door.
SHEENAGH: Weren't you tempted? Because I can easily see how they keep out of prison on that particular score anyway; the woman, understandably, doesn't complain. And I can see how both her story and the sergeant's continue, even the Bus crew if they're careful or devious enough... Does the consciousness of "series is where it's at" influence how you're writing now? - I notice you still killed a promising character off in your last!
MIKE: The ‘series is where it’s at’ thing doesn’t even enter my head. It is what it is at this moment in my career: I have a deal to write three books, so that’s what I will do. I suppose that’s the police officer still in me: you’ve got a job, do it as best you can, then move on. So after that’s done, who knows? If the publisher doesn’t want any more MacReady novels then I’ll write something else. Your ‘track’ (i.e. track record of sales) is everything nowadays and if you don’t sell enough you’re out, regardless of whether you’re writing a series or not. A few months back I read a piece written by an agent lamenting how long-term relationships and nurturing by publishers is becoming increasingly rare, how authors aren’t given a chance to establish themselves or their ‘brand’ and make the publishing house some money back. It’s the nature of the business now, depressing as it is.
As for the Ugly Bus characters, the only one I’ve given serious consideration to returning to is the female character and how she navigates her life and career after those terrible events. That novel was a nightmare to write. It wasn’t just the ‘difficult second album’ syndrome. During the eighteen months of the first draft my wife and I were working full time opposite shifts, we had two children under four, moved house twice in the UK then abroad, I had another job as a creative writing tutor with nearly a hundred students on my books, and I was still to finish my University work. It was incredibly stressful. And then it was released to absolutely no fanfare and pretty much disappeared, which was heart-breaking. So I have mixed feelings about it – while I’m not sure I want to write another ninety thousand words following the same flawed/awful coppers, I’m hugely proud of the book itself: the effort it took to write, the characters and story and that final kicker that everyone gasped about.
SHEENAGH: By now, you must have had quite a lot to do with publishers, editors, the process of actually getting a book published and marketed. What advice would you give a writer new to all that?
MIKE: A great question. It’s wonderful being published, it was a dream come true, and I’ve had moments – certainly in the beginning, with the people I met, the places I was wined and dined in – where I’ve had to pinch myself. But I always think of ‘The Wizard of Oz’, because as glorious as it is at first, and as terrific and enthusiastic as the people can be in publishing, you quickly discover what’s behind the curtain ain’t all that. It’s a job, and sometimes a ball-achingly tedious one, and occasionally a clench-your-fists-and-scream-at-the-skie
Mike's new novel, Unforgivable, comes out from Zaffre in July.