Author Conversation: Damien Seaman and William Ryan (Part 2)

This is the second part of the conversation between author William Ryan and Damien Seaman (Read the first part here)

Damien Seaman has a degree in modern history from Oxford University and before becoming an author worked as a journalist, parliamentary assistant, financial analyst and security guard. His debut novel, The Killing of Emma Gross (Blasted Heath) is set in the Weimar Germany of the 1920s and is based on the real-life serial killer Peter Kürten and the unsolved murder of Düsseldorf prostitute Emma Gross. You can find Damien at his blog (Go here) and also on Twitter (@Damienseaman).

William Ryan was educated at Trinity College, Dublin and the University of St Andrews and worked as a lawyer before taking up writing full-time. The first two novels of his Captain Korolev series, The Holy Thief and The Darkening Field (The Bloody Meadow), are set in the 1930s Soviet Union. They’ve been shortlisted for the Theakstons Old Peculier Crime Novel of the Year, The Kerry Group Irish Fiction Award, The CWA John Creasy New Blood Dagger, a Barry Award and the Ireland AM Irish Crime Novel of the Year. You can find William at his website (here) and also on Twitter (@WilliamRyan_).

In a virtual world where anything is possible, William and Damien met in a pre-war Prague coffee house, with the “Harry Lime” theme from The Third Man playing in the background. Talk turned to their respective crime novels, historical crime fiction in general, the pitfalls of research and the challenges of digital publishing. Not to mention their shared love of interwar intrigue…

D: Well I’m flattered that you took notes! I will admit to being lucky on that last score. Obviously I read an awful lot, as much as I could find that would seem relevant.

The luck came in that the forensic pathologist who worked on the Kurten case wrote a book based on it, which included details of the autopsies he’d carried out on the victims. That was Karl Berg, who I made into a character in the novel. That was my first bit of luck.

The second bit of luck was going to visit a friend in New York. While I was there, I had a browse of the shelves of the Strand bookstore on Broadway and found an English translation of a criminology textbook written by Dr Hans Gross of the University of Prague and published in 1924. This is a wonderful book, which I recommend to anyone with an interest in the criminology of the period. It’s crammed full of detail and is written with a charming confidence in the power of the dispassionate professional to serve the public. It’s an uplifting read except in one respect: it makes clear by contrast how much modern policing is just as politicized as it was in Germany under Nazism. Less malign, for the most part, but no less politicized, which is a sobering thought.

As for Klein, he’s definitely sentimental. A frustrated romantic. I was trying to work out what it would be like for a capable soldier to return home and want to belong to a country that on one level would hold him up as a hero but on another level always blame him for failing them and losing the war. So he keeps getting rejected by the society he wants to serve. This is why he starts to feel an affinity with Kurten while finding him repellent at the same time.

It’s funny that you see The Bloody Meadow as more of a spy story. I think there are elements of that in The Holy Thief too, maybe because of the cloak and dagger atmosphere, because everything in the Soviet Russia you depict is political. But how on earth did you go about researching Soviet Russia in the 1930s when the country was so secretive about so much? Also, how did you deal with gaps in your knowledge when it came to writing your two novels? I found balancing fact and fiction to be the single most difficult thing about writing The Killing of Emma Gross, so I’m curious about how you’ve approached that in your writing.

W: Like you I read a great deal in the period and picked up scraps of information here and there that I thought would be useful for the novel while, at the same time, coming to understand more and more how Soviet Russia worked in the thirties. I watched contemporary movies, worked my way through a lot of Russian novels and memoirs, looked at photographs very carefully and read a lot of historians’ takes on the time and place.

I think there are two kinds of research – the research that you actually use on the page and the research that you keep in the background. If you look at a photograph from the thirties, for example, you know that beyond its edges there existed a reality that the image records only a moment of. I think you have to try and do the same thing with a novel – give the reader the sense that outside of the pages is a complete world that is consistent and accurate within its own terms. If you can do that then the reader will have confidence in you. Now, that having been said, I’m writing fiction so I’m relaxed about altering things to suit the plot and to keep the narrative flow going. When I read Simenon, I don’t need to have everything explained to me because I know he knows and I trust his knowledge of pre-war France – and I try to persuade the reader to trust me in the same way.

As for comparisons with your novel, they’re different in that you based your plot on real life killings whereas there’s nothing in my plots that’s real – only some of the characters and the background. That’s helpful in way because if I wasn’t very confident about some aspect of Soviet life I could just avoid it. That isn’t something you could really do, I suppose, and one of the striking things about your novel is the forensic detail of the crimes. I must admit I look back on The Holy Thief and don’t feel that comfortable about some of the more violent scenes but at the time I wanted to be accurate about what a certain type of crime involved. What about you? And would you do it again? And I suppose that begs the question – are you doing it again? Is Klein going to be tracking down more killers?

D: The violence thing is a fine line for those of us writing crime fiction. But most readers seem to expect it and enjoy it. I don’t see anything wrong with that as long as we avoid cliché as far as we can. In Emma Gross most of the deaths are based on what really happened, which is my get out clause. In the period we both write about I think it’s fair to say that most people were much more familiar with violence than we are today, so that’s bound to come out in the stories set in that time. I think that if you can’t depict violence in a way that is thought-provoking or fresh then it’s time to stop. Otherwise, as long as it serves the story you’re writing then I say go for it.

Would I do it again? Mmmmn, good question. Well, I do like the idea of taking inspiration from real events and then chopping them up and rearranging them into a story. My next project is more loosely based on real events. I’ve tried to give myself more room for invention, but there are kernels of truth in there. It doesn’t feature Klein, though.

I don’t really see Klein as a series character at the moment. The story of The Killing of Emma Gross is so personal to him that I think it would be a bit of slap in the face to readers – and to him – to bring him back. Either it would have to me a more run of the mill case, which will lack that same frisson, or it will have to be a case which became personal to him again, and that would be subject to diminishing returns. So Klein can take a well-earned rest for now. I’m putting others through the wringer for the next stories I have planned.

Korolev on the other hand seems to be the lynchpin of your work. So what do you have planned for him next? I believe you’ve been doing an awful lot of research recently, so what can we look forward to?

W: Korolev’s next investigation is loosely based on the Soviets’ interest in understanding, and occasionally manipulating, mental processes. Brainwashing first became notorious during the Korean War when American and British prisoners suddenly became ardent communists but it’s equally apparent in the show-trials of the 1930s where senior communists admitted to making plans to poison Moscow and the like. How it was done is still a little opaque but certainly many of the “non-invasive” interrogation techniques used in Guantanamo Bay were developed by the Soviets and had their origins in Pavlov’s experiments with dogs as well as, it turns out, children.

I have an old Moscow guidebook which mentions “The Brain Institute” existing in a building that’s now the French Ambassador’s residence and so all of these elements have come together to put Korolev in the middle of an NKVD turf war with two dead scientists on his hands and a runaway son to try and track down. I’ve no idea what it’s called at the moment; in fact I’m not even exactly sure how it ends. It’s turning out to be very much character driven which, when it works, can be great, but it can also be a disaster. Ask me how it went at the end of April.

But, come on, you can’t leave us hanging – tell us more about this next novel of yours. And, if you wouldn’t mind, a bit about Blasted Heath – it’s a publisher with a difference.

D: Wow, that story sounds great. And I can imagine it as a great setting for Korolev to do his detecting. Remind me to ask you how it all turned out!

As for my next one, it’s a short novel based on an idea that’s been nagging at me for a while. In 1932 the German federal government of nationalists, industrialists and other conservatives set out to abolish the staunchly Socialist Prussian state government. To do so the federal government re-legalized the activities of the Nazi SA paramilitaries and sat back waiting for the streets of Berlin to erupt. When that happened they would step in and blame the Prussian state for losing control, as policing was the states’ responsibility.

Against this backdrop I’ve got two mismatched Berlin detectives trying to solve the murder of a young SA member whose girlfriend is the niece of a local gangster. Oh, and she’s also disappeared. Meanwhile, the gangster is known to have Communist connections and to have threatened his niece’s boyfriend. My detectives have to solve the murder before the streets go up in flames. Like you though, I don’t have a title for it yet and it’s a little way off being finished at the moment.

My publisher Blasted Heath bills itself as Scotland’s first digital-only publisher. Basically that means they publish only ebooks, and they’re based in Scotland. The ethos is similar to the paperback pulp fiction publishers of the fifties and sixties. They want to get gripping and often gritty crime writing out to the widest number of readers by the most cost-effective means. They see digital publishing as the best way to do this, both because of the reduced costs compared with print and because you can reach readers all around the world quickly and easily. They also emphasize how author-friendly their contracts are in terms of rights and royalties, and I have to agree. It’s great fun to be part of something like this, I can tell you.

But how do you feel about publishing at the moment? Do you think there’s a future for printed books? How do you feel about being a recently published author?

W: I think it’s going to be a challenge for writers and publishers over the next few years but there will also be opportunities for them to connect with their readers directly in ways that wouldn’t have been possible just five years ago.

Will the printed book survive? Well, yes, I think there will always be printed books – if only because people like me want to hold them and have them. On the other hand, I’ll be very surprised if ebooks don’t come to dominate the market. That may mean fewer physical books in actual bookshops in which case I think it’s going to be more difficult for writers and publishers to make their books known to readers – but, at the same time, readers will also be finding new ways to identify books that are worth reading.

There’s going to be a lot of change but much of it will probably be for the better. As an example, The Holy Thief is still bubbling away two years on – and that may just be because it’s still getting reviewed and being discussed online by bloggers and readers. In the past that reviewing window would have been much smaller and limited to newspapers and magazines – so that’s good news. But I’m guessing, as you asked the question, you have some views on this yourself.

D: Well, not to come across as copping out, but I share all of your opinions and just have a couple more to add. I love the feel of a beaten up paperback in my hands, and I love browsing bookshops. I think that ebook dominance is pretty likely and I think it probably means the death of bookstore chains, because surely the world will shift to print on demand instead of stockpiling books?

Of course, if the chains do die we should remember that they killed off independent local bookshops to achieve dominance, so maybe we shouldn’t get all tearful about that. The chains killed the independents by selling books more cheaply. Now Amazon is doing the same to the chains. Karma, anyone?

So, distribution will change and marketing will change to some extent. But publishing has always been tough. Becoming known to the wider public has always taken time, even for the big names, whether that’s Dickens, Vonnegut or Lee Child. Fundamentally, I agree with you. For writers and readers the potential benefits outweigh the drawbacks, though I agree too that the industry is in for a bumpy few years. As someone just starting out, with little to lose, I can appreciate the fun side of the chaos. I just hope others can too.

More importantly, we all need to remember that great books are out there to be discovered. Speaking of which, I would urge anyone reading this who hasn’t yet to discover The Holy Thief. To back up your point, even though it came out in 2010, I didn’t pick it up until last year and it was great!

Thanks for the opportunity to chat. It’s been great sharing writing and research experiences. And I’m really looking forward to the next Korolev novel. Just don’t forget to let me know when you’ve come up with a title!

At which point there came the sound of shouted orders and running boots from the street outside. Our intrepid authors turned up the lapels of their trench coats, pulled their fedoras low over their faces and bolted for the back, leaving The Mystery Tribune in something of a predicament …