Chris Nickson writes in one of my favourite genres – historical mysteries – as well as non-fiction (music journalism and biography) and contemporary (okay, the 80’s, but I refuse to believe that counts as historical) mysteries set in Seattle. Being an Englishman who lived in America, he’s sort of my opposite, so it’s been interesting to hear from him!
2. If you could live anywhere, where would it be?
Leeds. It’s where I started out, where most of my books are set, and where, I’ve discovered, my heart feels at home. I’ve lived in several places in England and America, some of them, like Seattle or Dronfield (on the edge of the Peak District), quite lovely. But next year we’re moving to Leeds, and that makes me happy.
3. What are you most scared of?
Something happening to my son. No question there.
4. Which book do you wish you’d written?
Where to begin on that one? There’s Divisadero or In The Skin Of a Lion by Michael Ondaatje, where the language just knocks me over with its beauty. Or pretty much anything by Elmore Leonard – it’s like cream. And then the opening of Hilary Mantel’s Bring Up the Bodies. The whole book (along with its predecessor) is staggeringly good, but the opening is so audacious it took my breath away.
5. How did you find your first agent?
My first agent was for my non-fiction, back in 1994 when I lived in Seattle. I had a real job and I was also a music journalist. A friend of mine had been offered a book that he didn’t want to write (an unauthorised biography of Mariah Carey, since you’re probably wondering) and asked if I was interested. It was money, and a book, so I was. It was being handled through the agent. In the end we did the best part of 30 books together, most of them quickie celeb biographies. Not art, but it paid the bills.
After I’d moved back to England I did briefly have an agent for my fiction, a tale I’d rather leave out. Then, after I’d published The Broken Token with Crème de la Crime, the company was bought out by Severn House, who wanted my second novel, Cold Cruel Winter. At that point I decided I needed an agent so I talked to several until I found Tina Betts with Andrew Mann, who’s turned out to be excellent.
6. What is your “guilty pleasure” reading?
I’m not sure I have a guilty pleasure as such. If a book’s good, it’s good, doesn’t matter what the style is. When I want something light I’ll read Janet Evanovich, but she’s an excellent writer. Great dialogue, easy, strong characters and the ability to make you suspend your disbelief in the most unlikely things.
Of my son. But in writing, probably when Library Journal named Cold Cruel Winter one of the 10 best mysteries of 2011. I spent the rest of the day walking around in a daze, barely able to speak and waiting for my partner to arrive home from work so I could show her. It was a remarkable moment for me and completely out of the blue.
8. What is the worst job you’ve ever had?
This one’s easy. In 1977 – about a year after I moved to the US – the job I had vanished and I ended up working in the office of a company that supplied uniforms to postal workers. Without any doubt, it was the most regimented and soulless place I’ve ever been employed.
9. Which of your characters would you most like to have a pint with in real life, and why?
Probably Amos Worthy, although he died at the end of the third book in the series. He’s dead but he refuses to go away completely. Things about him keep coming back. As soon as he walked into The Broken Token I knew there was something special about him. I don’t think I’d want to stand right by him, though. Just in case – he’s a man prone to violence.
10. Which character of someone else’s would you most like to have a pint with, and why?
Frederick Troy, John Lawton’s creation. He might not be the most social person, but to me he’s one of the best characters ever to reach the page. It’s a crime (no pun intended) that Lawton’s not a best-selling author. If you haven’t read his work, please do so.
11. Who was your first literary crush (author or character) and why?
Brer Rabbit, when I was three. As an adult, probably Vida Kramer in Richard Brautigan’s The Abortion. I loved that man’s work and the way his mind used to spin.
12. Which literary romance/friendship do you most wish you were a part of, and why?
I’m not sure you can call it a friendship as such, but the group of characters who move to found Cochadebajo de los Gatos in Louis de Bernières Latin American trilogy. I re-read the books every couple of years, and they’re people with such joy for life that it’s impossible to resist them.
13. What is the first thing you remember writing, and how old were you?
I’m fairly sure I wrote a few stories when I was seven or eight. But the first one I really remembers was when I was 11. It was homework – a story in three paragraphs. Mine was about someone who had to deal with an unexploded bomb and somehow using that structure just made sense to me and I was hooked. If the material seems odd, it was 1965, and in England the war didn’t seem that long ago, even though it ended well before I was born. We had an air raid shelter at the bottom of the garden and my father’s generation had all served in the war so it seemed quite tangible. But from there I wanted to be a writer. The only serious alternative was musician. I played in bands and solo – not for a living – for quite a few years, and I can safely say the world is better off with me as a writer (although some readers might disagree).
14. If people like your writing, what other writers would you recommend to them?
My editor says my work is somewhat like C.J. Sansom, although different period and I don’t include any royals. Maybe Candace Robb’s Owen Archer books – wonderful and I learned a lot from them. Honestly, that’s a tough question.
15. What do you hate most about the writing process?
About the only thing is going through the proofs. By that time I’ve spent enough time on the book to be sick of it, so it’s a case of forcing myself to be thorough.
All the rest of it. I really mean that. I love sitting down at the computer in the morning and opening up the document. Quite often I won’t even have a clue what’s coming until I start. But it’s a joy, it feels like a privilege to do this. There are times it can be emotionally draining but I wouldn’t change it for the world. Even editing is a pleasure, because I’m making what I’ve done into the best book it can be.
17. Popcorn: salty or sweet?
Neither – can’t stand the stuff.
18. Do your books share your personality? If they’re different, what’s the difference?
My books share my social conscience, I think, so they have my personality to that degree. But I’m not Richard Nottingham; I’m not that good a person. Really, all I do is write down the movie that’s playing in my head and hope it’s a good one.
19. What do you do when you have writer’s block?
I’m touching wood very hard as I write, but I don’t tend to get it. Part of that might come from having been a music journalist and working on deadlines. At one period I was having to research – with interviews, background et al – two stories a day and satisfy one of the best editors I’ve ever had. There was no time for block, you got on and did it. I think that really helped in some ways.
20. What are you working on now?
I’m writing the sixth Richard Nottingham book, provisionally called Fair And Tender Ladies. When it’s done I’ll hope my publisher likes it enough to want to put it out. And I’m preparing for the fifth book, At The Dying Of The Year, to appear in hardback next February, while the fourth, Come the Fear, is out in the US very, very soon.
On top of that I have something quite different appearing in March as a simultaneous audiobook and ebook. It’s called Emerald City, still a mystery but set in the Seattle music scene of 1988, just before the music that became called grunge exploded. I lived there then, saw many of the bands, and for several years I wrote for The Rocket, Seattle’s sadly-missed music paper.