Kill Clock – an Allan Guthrie Interview

Today we present an interview Allan Guthrie, writer, editor, and agent, best known for his Crime Fiction. His first novel, Two-Way Split, was shortlisted for the CWA Debut Dagger Award, won the Theakston’s Old Peculier Crime Novel of the Year Award in 2007. His next novel, Kiss Her Goodbye, was nominated for an Edgar Award and a Gumshoe Award.

alan guthrie

Brian Lindenmuth – Kill Clock is your latest release. It is a part of the Most Wanted line of books which is a line of crime novels for adult reluctant readers. What is a reluctant reader?

Allan Guthrie: I’ll try my best to answer this, although it’s not my area of expertise.

My understanding of the term ‘reluctant reader’ (also known as ’emergent reader’) is that it applies, broadly, to someone who may not be entirely enthusiastic about the prospect of picking up a novel. Therefore it covers a wide range: from readers with learning difficulties to those with dyslexia, from those who are out of practice to those who’ve developed a negative attitude towards novels after reading one or two books that perhaps weren’t best suited to them.

Brian Lindenmuth – Plus why should an adult reader, possibly with difficulties, be forced to read children’s books or YA novels.

One of the things that I found out when I was researching the Black Crime Fiction article was that in the US prisons the books of Donald Goines are checked out more so then any other, by a wide margin. Some have said that it’s because of a relatable subject matter but that can’t be the sole factor in his popularity because other authors don’t share the same level of success. An educator speculated that part of his popularity may stem from his simple sentence structure and usage of small (er) words, estimating that the average sentence length in a Donald Goines novel was 7 words. This is probably the case when considering reading/education levels of the inmates.

So then, is Kill Clock your Donald Goines novel?

Allan Guthrie: I suspect that the relatable subject matter has a lot to do with it — and possibly also the relatable point of view (I can’t imagine too many prisoners being overjoyed at the prospect of reading a book written from a cop’s viewpoint, for example). But I’m sure ease of reading is a major factor too. I suspect that’s true of James Patterson’s phenomenal success, too (short words, short sentences, short paragraphs, short chapters), just as it was for Mickey Spillane. As for Kill Clock being my Donald Goines novel(la) — I’d be delighted if it was.

Brian Lindenmuth – I understand that your wife is an adult literacy tutor; will she be using Kill Clock as a teaching tool?

Allan Guthrie: She’d very much like to, although that particular scenario hasn’t materialized quite yet.

Brian Lindenmuth – Neil Gaiman is writing a book called Odd and the Frost Giants for the World Book Day UK program where authors write books for free, publishers publish them for free and they get sold to children for £1 each to kids who have been given £1 Book Tokens. All of which is set to go down on March 6th, 2008. Is the literacy rate and/or book indifference a big problem in the UK?

Allan Guthrie: Adult literacy in the UK is a huge problem. I’m not sure of UK-wide figures, but in Scotland, which has a population of 5 million people, 500,000 adults assessed their own skills as poor or moderate according to the Scottish Executive’s Adult Literacy and Numeracy Report, 2001. Once all the data was analyzed, the report concluded that in fact 800,000 adults in Scotland have ‘very low’ reading or numeracy skills. Which is a pretty sizeable chunk of the adult population.

As for book indifference: I think the rampant bestseller culture has to take the blame for some of that.

Brian Lindenmuth – I think programs like this are fantastic but one hypothetical question does come to mind, if these books have limited print runs, do these programs ever run the risk of NOT reaching their intended audience or NOT successfully completing their intended goals because the attached author’s fans wind up buying the books?

Allan Guthrie: The way it works is that you need a WBD token to exchange for the book, and each school kid gets one. There’s a one-off printing, sure, but it’s a pretty massive print-run. From my own memories of working in a bookstore, there’s usually surplus stock, so I don’t think there’s too much fear of only the fans getting hold of the books.

Brian Lindenmuth – Someone whom you sent an email to recently forwarded it to me so I assume you are referring in part to Clare Alexander’s comments, “We have the stupidest bestseller list in the world at the moment.” Hers is the most recent of a few “Tyranny of Bestsellers” pieces over the last year or so that are trying to rally against the bean counter notion of sticking with formula and more-of-the-same-branding whether its biographies of well known’s, tie in fiction and ghost written celebrity tell alls.

Is this an alarmist reaction or is this a legitimate concern for everyone?

Allan Guthrie: I don’t think its alarmist. My own experience as a literary agent backs this up. The most common rejection note coming my way these days is ‘book x is terrific but it isn’t big enough for us’. Which, translated, means something like: it’ll be tough to sell 10,000 copies so we’ll pass.

Naturally, other agents are receiving the same kind of responses with the result that fewer and fewer new novelists are being taken on by agencies. I should state that this is by no means universal, but it is extremely common.

Incidentally, another very common reason for passing on an otherwise excellent novel is that the author has no ‘platform’. In other words, there’s no publicity hook for the marketing team to latch onto. With celebrity authors, marketing is so much more straightforward — widespread media coverage at your fingertips — and thus very attractive to publishers.

Brian Lindenmuth – Is it a bit of a chicken and egg problem where the publishers want to publish what sells and the consumers buy what’s being published?

Allan Guthrie: Publishers want to publish what sells, of course. They always have — they’re businesses and they need to make money to survive. What’s changed is that there used to be an opportunity for a writer to make their mark over a few novels (think of the slow progress towards bestsellerdom of Alexander McCall Smith, Ian Rankin, and James Ellroy). These days bestseller status is expected to come much more quickly. The short term has now taken over from the longer term view. Which strikes me as very odd.

As for consumers buying what’s being published, that’s very possibly true of the reader who buys their fiction at supermarkets where the choice is less important than the price. But we’re leaking hardcore readers all the time. And young male readers are finding it hard to find the kind of books that might interest them. Choice (or ‘range’ as booksellers like to call it) is hugely important and without it, the entire industry’s in trouble.

Brian Lindenmuth – With their limited print runs and limited distributions are small presses the answer? Speaking strictly as a consumer I find the lack of independent/small press stuff on the shelves to be appalling.

Allan Guthrie: Small presses perform a vital role in the industry. They’re often the breeding ground for new talent. It’s tragic that they’re finding shelf space increasingly limited, but the chain stores tend to look to the bottom line: margin. The small presses find it hard to compete since their costs per book are much higher than larger publishers.

A case in point: when my debut novel was first published in the US, a chain store invited it to be included in a national promotion. We were all very excited until the chain store told us what discount they expected. Since the book was at the time published using POD technology (which is more expensive than traditional offset) and the level of discount demanded was staggeringly high (even I was surprised at just how high it was — and I used to handle invoices for a chain store every working day for several years), the publisher was going to lose money on every copy sold. So the invitation was declined.

Brian Lindenmuth – Which leads me to the next question, which I was going to ask a bit later on but will do so now.

Recently there have been some ‘state of the genre’ conversations around the web concerning, in part, experimentation within the genre. What is your assessment of the genre today? Is it stagnant?

Allan Guthrie: There are far too many interesting writers out there to call the genre stagnant. Ask me the same question in five years, though, and we’ll see how the risk-aversion policy has played out.

Brian Lindenmuth – The main character of Kill Clock is once again Pearce who first appeared in Two-Way Split, then later on in Hard Man. Hell, now that he has found Jesus and has taken care of 2 kids he is practically domesticated, what’s next for him?

Allan Guthrie: Good question. I don’t have an answer just yet, I’m afraid. He’s definitely on (at least) a two-book hiatus. Poor guy needs to take a breather.

Brian Lindenmuth – How challenging was it to write a story where the protagonist was incapacitated (literally tied to a bench) for much of the last third or so of the book?

Allan Guthrie: In many ways, the earlier part of the book was harder to write. I prefer writing action to introspection, and the latter part of the book is much faster paced. Even when Pearce is immobilized there’s plenty of action. So, no, it wasn’t that much harder than normal. I think it helps that the books written from multiple viewpoints, so there’s always the possibility of cutting away to another location to advance the story.

Brian Lindenmuth – All of your novels so far have a shared cast of characters. One character who is in the background in one novel may find themselves as the main character in the next. You’re not the only writer to do this, Duane Swierczynski, Laura Lippman, Ken Bruen and others do it also. Is it an attempt to write a non-series series or is there some secret pact at work here?

Allan Guthrie: My intention was to have a few characters who appeared in more than one book to create some sense of a shared universe. I never really intended using Pearce so much. He was a bit of an accident. He just sort of stood there demanding attention and wouldn’t move, even when I shouted at him and threatened him with violence.

Brian Lindenmuth – Your next novel is called Savage Night. I know precious little about this book but three questions immediately come to mind. Are there any familiar characters, including Pearce? Is there any relation to the classic Jim Thompson novel? And finally, the more generic, what can you tell us about it?

Allan Guthrie: Pearce isn’t in it but there are a couple of cameo appearances by minor characters from previous books. There’s no relation to the Jim Thompson novel, other than the fact that this novel is a psycho noir, for which Thompson was famous.

What can I tell you about the novel … It’s a bloody revenge tragedy about a couple of families whose paths cross with disastrous results. The head of one family is a haemophobic psychopathic arsonist whose son is a hit man.

The family has no idea where to draw the line — mess with them at your peril. So when the other family dares to mess with them (and they do, big-time), the poor bastards need all the help they can get. Most of the action takes place over the course of a single evening. Six hours, I think it is. And I’m using a highly fractured chronology to tell the story. If you invite me back next year I’ll tell you some more.

Brian Lindenmuth – After that the next one on deck is Slammer, a prison novel. My pet theory is that this will focus on Cooper’s time in prison, but what do I know. Anything, other then speculated release dates, you can tell us about it?

Allan Guthrie: Sorry, Brian, it’s not about Cooper. It’s actually about a prison officer, but I better not say too much. I haven’t even finished a first draft yet and I find the changes between first and twentieth drafts tend to be extreme enough to suggest that talking about a book in advance is the best way to ensure I end up inadvertently telling a whole pack of lies.

Brian Lindenmuth – You indicated in your interview with Sandra in Spinetingler that you didn’t notice the violence in Hard Man until it was pointed out to you because you were already involved in the next one, which is even more violent. Do you expect a resurgence of the “torture porn” debate? Is this debate a little stifling in terms of creativity, playing into rigid definitions of sub-genres?

Allan Guthrie: I have no idea what to expect. Hard Man hit a raw nerve with a couple of reviewers, which surprised the hell out of me, since it’s my best book to date by a country mile and I foolishly imagined everybody would see that. I’m not sure if there’ll be a resurgence of the torture porn debate with Savage Night. There is torture in SN (almost all novels are about torturing the protagonist in one form or another), but it’s predominantly psychological and nobody seems to give a shit about that. Weirdly.

Debate isn’t stifling, although it’s often pointless when it’s about a matter of taste. I don’t think that definitions of sub-genres does anyone much good — they’re really just handy labels for marketing purposes.

Brian Lindenmuth – You edited The Best New Noir anthology which was listed on Amazon for awhile now is listed as out of stock or not available. Did it even get released at all? That was a fantastic cover.

Allan Guthrie: It was all ready to go, contracts signed, the works. Unfortunately the publisher pulled it because the advance orders didn’t meet their expectations.

Brian Lindenmuth – This next question is from Patrick, who is, as you’ll see, smitten with a certain somebody. – “Have you met Donna Moore? And if so, is she as cool in person as she is on her blog and in the random book chat rooms she enters?”

Allan Guthrie: Have I met Donna? Many, many times. And she’s EVEN MORE WONDERFUL in real life, Patrick.

“Ask Sunshine about how tough it is to sit down/stand up when you have hair that extends down to your ass crack.” Duane Swierczynski

Allan Guthrie: Swierczynski’s quite insane, you know. I worry about him. I guess inserting tampons up his nose while playing his flute was some kind of cry for help. I hope it’s not too late. You know he has a hamster he believes is Kevin Wignall? Sad, isn’t it?

Brian Lindenmuth – So where is the Theakston keg now?

Allan Guthrie: Even though it’s only a mini-barrel, it’s too big to fit on the mantelpiece. So it has pride of place on the sitting room windowsill.

It’s true. To this day, whenever my daughter sees a photo of Guthrie online, she mutters something about “that cunt” needing a “Colombian necktie.”Duane Swierczynski

Brian Lindenmuth – Al, thanks a lot for taking the time, I really do appreciate it. I also just wanted to say congrats, its been a hell of a year for you with two releases and also on other recent successes with the release of Dave White’s When One Man Dies and the recent deal for Anthony Neal Smith, hopefully future deals will be as successful.

Allan Guthrie: My pleasure, Brian. Good questions. And you’re a very generous guy.