Hi Des, thank you so much for joining me today. Can you tell me a little about your book, Dead and Talking and what inspired it?
It’s lovely to be here. Thank you for the invite. The novel is about a man who is forced to atone for the “sins” of his family by a sort of ghost – think It’s a Wonderful Life’s Clarence! – And he can only do that by righting some historical wrongs. He’s given the gift of being able to peer into the last moments of dead people’s lives if he’s near their remains. Which sort of helps. He’s a natural sceptic and thinks he’s going a bit mad but picks up some fellow travellers who help him. It quickly becomes an ensemble piece. Although set today, the first case he has to solve is of a private shot for desertion in WW1. He soon finds it is linked to his own family history.
It’s dark in places but is also funny because he and his helpers are all so reluctant to believe any of it is happening. There are some Ealing Comedy moments too. Tone-wise, it’s in the same ballpark as Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Though, as I say, the dark moments are pretty dark.
It was inspired by a few actual events from WW1. After I started plotting it, I also had to make a film about the role of soldiers from the Empire who fought for the British. I spent some time in Ypres, at the In Flanders Fields Museum and at some locations not open to tourists. It all sort of fitted together. Actually, doesn’t this show how research doesn’t just adorn the plot, it can become the plot?
What’s your typical writing day like? Is there somewhere specific you like to write?
I nearly always get up and go to a local coffee shop to get started for an hour or two on my laptop. I like to see the world go by before I hunker down behind the closed doors of my office. I write between 1-4 hours a day because I’m a filmmaker by trade and that takes up a lot of time. I wish I could spend more time writing.
How did your background in journalism help with writing your book?
Many ways. Not having a fear of the blank page helps a lot. Knowing how to plan, how to sub, how to edit. Knowing the importance of drafts and revisions. Welcoming constructive criticism and actually acting on it.
But it’s also in the people I’ve met. I’ve spent a lot of quality time with Normandy veterans and other soldiers. Also, my starting point has always been a journalistic one of trying to see both sides of an argument and so, though a natural sceptic myself, I’m able to suspend that disbelief while writing, simply by putting myself in the mind of someone who does believe. Sceptic or not, who doesn’t love the idea that there are ghosts?
What would your reaction be to a ghost? It would scare the hell out of me.
I’m a journalist. A sceptical journalist. But not a cynical one. I will never, ever believe there are ghosts until I see one myself though. I don’t care who else tells me. But if I did see one, I would use it as a basis to explore how I’d been wrong all this time. Sadly, I haven’t seen one – though I’ve seen quite a bit of death and spent a ridiculous amount of my life in cemeteries when I was younger. Always been a bit morbid.
I’d kill to see one. Even if I was afraid, I’d be delighted.
What’s your favourite word and why?
My favourite word would have to be coffee. For obvious reasons.
NK: Yes, I hear you.
What are you currently working on?
I’m plotting out the second book in the series at the moment but also working on two non-fiction titles. One is a book about The Beatles culled from 200 hours of interviews I’ve done, including with McCartney. But it is not the usual Beatles book.
NK: Oooh, I am very excited by this answer.
The other is a film manual for teachers to help them make better films with their pupils. This stemmed from www.youngdirectorsfilmschool.com which is a movie-making course I set up and now run four times a year, in which we make a movie in a week with teenagers in East London.
What song best describes you?
Night and Day by Cole Porter but only the version sang by Peter Skellern. Everyone else in the history of music has recorded that song as a dance number (it was originally written for Fred Astaire) but Skellern turned it into a deep song of yearning. I also write songs and I doubt I’ve written many in the past 20 years that I haven’t measured up against that song, that version – unfavourably of course, because Cole Porter is the greatest songwriter of them all (even though I grew up on 80s pop and believe the Beatles to be the greatest cultural phenomenon of the 20th century).
NK: Totally agree about The Beatles, Des.
Which fictional character would you like to meet and why?
Sherlock Holmes! Easy. Been obsessed with him since I was a teenager. It was Holmes and Phliip Marlowe that kickstarted my love of crime fiction. I must have read 1000 books since then as a direct result of discovering those two characters.
What is your writing process like from idea to final draft? How long does it take you to write a book?
I’m a plotter who can turn outlines into fully fleshed ideas very quickly. But as Hemingway said, “All first drafts are shit.” And he was right: they are. Dead & Talking went through 6-8 drafts. Then I gave it to my editor and had to do 2 more after that. For me, writing is about having the freedom to explore. But the best freedom you can have is to know what you’re talking about. Go to Westfield shopping. If you just go, with no purpose, you’ll buy some crap, have an ice cream and come home with a piece of junk. Go with the intention of spending £500 on trousers and you’ll go to the right shops and come home with 20 pairs. I know Stephen King is a pantser, but for me I need the skeleton. It’s not binary anyway. Even with a well laid out plot I’m making everything up as I go, so plotting and pantsing aren’t mutually exclusive.
For fun, I wrote something recently which I had not plotted out. I had characters and a situation and I had a good idea for the central idea and how it might end. I was able to splurge away no problem, but I found it unsatisfying compared to the hell I went thought mapping out the plot of Dead & Talking.
Dead & Talking took 6 months to plan and write, which had to be spread over 18 months because of my filmmaking, the film school etc. But the ratio of planning to writing was 2:1.
What elements do you think make up a good novel?
Character, plot, light and shade, consistency. One of the problems I faced with this book was that, because it knowingly reflects my own literary interests and loves, I knew from the start I would have a problem with publishing it conventionally because it is cross-genre. The very first agent I approached, on the first day, called my book in based on my three chapters. He read it over the weekend and gave me fantastic feedback. But he became the first of three agents who all said the same thing (roughly) – this is brilliant, let’s go for lunch, but I won’t take this book on because it’ll be hard to find a publisher who’ll go cross-genre.
Literally, I had 3 agent replies within 3 weeks of sending out 4 copies. I’m probably still on the slush pile of the 4th agent. I’ve been professionally writing as a journalist and filmmaker since I was 18 for The Times, the BBC etc. If I couldn’t write something professional and engaging that would have been a shock. But I could not believe that the literary world was so narrow. You don’t have this problem in TV, for example, where things can be cross genre. I decided that all agents would probably say the same thing as these first three, and gave up immediately looking for one. Collecting 200 rejection slips seemed a pointless exercise in self-flagellation when KDP exists. So i employed all the same professionals traditional publishers would have done: editor, proof-reader, graphic designer. It’s starting slowly, but across the main reading sites, I’ve had only 5-star reviews bar one 3-star on Goodreads (and they are all real reviews, the advice I was given was don’t let your mum review it or it’ll put people off).
So after going through all that, I realised the best thing I could do was just make sure it would stand up to comparison with published writers. Luckily, I know an awful lot of deeply cruel, bitchy, jealous but honest pro-writers! I invited them to tear me to shreds. They did too! But the thing that I picked up most from their valuable comments was the importance of consistency, or at least levelling things out. The worst scenes in the book were far, far darker and more explicit in the early drafts. Other writers told me to narrow the distance in tone between the banter and humour of the questees and the more disturbing scenes from WW1. I’m used to being edited so didn’t complain and just got on with it. They were right too.
Any advice for someone who is thinking of writing a novel or in the middle of writing one and suffering writers block?
I honestly don’t know what to advise. As I say, I’ve been writing for a living since I was 18 and have never had writers block – even when I was a kid. When I was at school I wrote a 45 page thriller called “Death to the President.” I even designed a cover of a silhouette in the crosshairs of a gun for it. I still have it upstairs. I was 11 and hadn’t even read a crime/thriller then. I remember as a kid struggling to get the pen to keep up with my thoughts. Thank God I can touch-type now but the same problem is still there to a lesser degree. I don’t really understand writer’s block.
Most of us don’t struggle to have a conversation if we’re in a pub, with friends, having a pint. Ideally, that’s what writing should be: an exercise in getting your thoughts out. Hopefully without the interruptions you would get in a pub.
But here’s one tip. If you know how the story ends and you know how the story begins, you know the middle will be the opposite to the ending.
For example, if I tell you to give me a love story. Well, that’s so unspecific of course you’re going to struggle to come up with something original. But if I tell you the beginning features an elephant and a monkey and the ending features an explosion in New York…. well, I can waffle a basic story with that info which I’ll now write in real time to show I’m not cheating. Elephant and monkey escape from a cruel private zoo owner in Vegas, and undercover of desert and darkness, make their way cross country to a Shangri-la they’ve heard of – New York Zoo. As they go, they pick up animal companions who help them but also the attention of a reality tv star who wants to kill the elephant for his ivory. He captures them midway but they escape. As they get closer and closer to New York, regular sightings mean they have become social media celebrities and the world follows their journey online. Campaigners try to keep them safe. Eventually the animals make it to the zoo and safety but not before a final confrontation with the poacher who dies, as he lived, in an explosion near the zoo in the full glare of social media. (Thinking time: 0. Writing time: 2 minutes).
There are a million questions you could ask, but if you have it in your head that you want to do a fictionalised account of a friend who lost a baby, I think it won’t work. It’s not a developed idea.
However, if (to spontaneously answer some of the questions posed) the 1941 death of a child in the Blitz, not by German bombs, but by a gas leak caused by a broken pipe not maintained by a slum landlord – leads to the breakdown of a marriage. The husband, who is already wounded, cannot fight any longer, but becomes an air raid warden and is wracked by guilt and feelings of impotence. The mother, however, is so driven by hatred and a desire for revenge, she joins the army and ends up in Europe as a support member of staff for the BEF. She develops a reputation as a cold-blooded killer.
Eventually, the estranged husband and wife meet up again after the war. He has remarried and has another child. She has spent her last years of fertility killing people.
Now that sounds like a story to me. So the question is: how safe are you going to be? How willing are you to use your personal experiences, not as a direct lift, but as a springboard?
About Dead and Talking:
If a ghost appeared from nowhere, rescued you from suicide and then ordered you to start solving crimes to help dead people, what would you do? When it happens to Porter Norton, he just wants to put his head in his hands and have nothing to do with it. But now he has to atone for the family curse that has seen all the men die at their own hands for five generations. The Gliss, the sarcastic spirit that rescues him, says he can now and see and hear the Dead – if he’s close to their remains. Porter has to use his unwelcome gift to clear up past injustices. Or else.
Forced to investigate the murder of a WW1 British Tommy executed for spying in 1917, he begins to suspect the case has links to his own family history. Along the way, Porter enlists the help of a bickering group of misfits, who struggle to stay involved – because only fools believe in the supernatural, don’t they? Full of pop culture references, banter and twists, the story takes us from present-day London and Flanders to scenes from World War 1.
As Porter, The Gliss, and friends, get deeper into the explosive case, they discover their own lives and sanity are at stake. An evil from WW1 pursues them all.
Born in the middle of the Summer of Love on a pre-fab council estate in Luton, teenage bitterness and a chance viewing of the Watergate movie, All the President’s Men, made him vow to become a journalist and bring down the government.
First he had to pay for his journalism course, so he became a civil servant. Literally the day he had enough for his fees, he packed it in.
Twelve years on from watching the film, he was a journalist at The Times and had a big hand in bringing down John Major’s government. News ambitions sated, he packed that in too.
Several years of working for Channel 4, ITV and the BBC as a senior producer saw him working across the world, but he eventually got fed up with asking bands how the new album was coming along, and packed it in.
He set up his own production company magnificent! in 2002 and simultaneously worked on the BBC Live Events team for another 10 years. But then six years of work on the Olympics came along, so he packed the BBC in. Again.
Des has jammed with many of his heroes from Paul McCartney to Brian Wilson, Queen to Nancy Sinatra. He has interviewed many A-listers, including David Bowie, Michael Caine, John Cleese and even Noam Chomsky.
He has directed/produced a fairly long list of people – Muse, Coldplay, Michael Jackson, Jay-Z, produced BBC3’s Glastonbury coverage for a couple of years, made films about leprosy in India, comedy shorts with Miranda Hart and Lenny Henry and played guitar for Chas and Dave at the Hackney Empire.
He has made 300+ short films for the Queen, MI5, the BBC, Sky, Discovery, EMI, the British Academy and dozens of authorities, charities and private sector firms. His most recent publication was a series of interviews with leading academics like Mary Beard on the state of the humanities which was published as a standalone magazine by the British Academy.
Fed up with travelling and determined to be a half-decent dad, he now works in London as often as he can. He runs the Young Directors Film School making movies with young people and is about to head up the Digital Film and Video MA at Tileyard. An avid musician and producer, he releases his third album as Romano Chorizo (he plays drums, bass, piano, guitar and really bad sax).
He hates to be pigeon-holed, thinks creativity is a learned state of mind and wishes they would teach people memory and learning techniques at school.
Dead & Talking is his first novel, the first in a series of Porter & The Gliss investigations.