Wednesday, July 8, 2020

Chris Nickson

Chris Nickson is the author of The Molten City and seven previous Tom Harper mysteries, seven highly acclaimed novels in the Richard Nottingham series, and two Simon Westow mysteries. He is also a well-known music journalist. He lives in his beloved Leeds.

My Q&A with the author:

How much work does your title do to take readers into the story?

I like a title to intrigue and maybe offer a small signpost to the story – enough to make someone want to open the book and start reading. With the Tom Harper series I’ve chosen a theme of metal/precious metals. While a theme can initially be a good idea, it can also end up a bit limiting - as I’ve discovered. So it’s very much a double-edged sword.

What's in a name?

A name can indicate a great deal. In this book I wrote that working-class families would often choose fanciful names for their daughters because it was as close to frivolous luxury as they’d come in their lives. But my main character, Tom Harper, has a deliberately plain name, something that’s no-nonsense, easy to remember, with a little power to it (in my eyes). His wife’s named Annabelle – one of those fanciful names – yet their daughter is Mary. Ordinary, straightforward. And in all three cases, I feel the names reflect the personalities (or is it the other way round?)

How surprised would your teenage reader self be by your new novel?

He’d be aghast that I was writing crime fiction, and historical crime fiction at that, set in the city where he grew up but was eager to leave, and also weaving in tiny strands from his family’s history. But he was a literary, pretentious fellow. His first completed novel, written when he was 20, was in thrall to Brautigan, and he spent his adolescence reading poets like Apollinaire and the novels of Joyce with a sage look on his face. Still, it would be good to give him a shock.

Do you find it harder to write beginnings or endings? Which do you change more?

I think beginnings are harder for me. It had to be the right scene with the right tone for me to feel my way into the book. Once I have the first 5,000 words I can pretty much press on. The knack is getting them right. It’s easier with a series, as I know the characters, where and how they live. Yet life also moves on and they grow older, as in the opening chapter of The Molten City. It’s meant as a jolt, a bit of a dislocation that leaves Tom thinking about his own life a little, and his relationships.

Do you see much of yourself in your characters? Do they have any connection to your personality, or are they a world apart?

I think there’s a bit of me in every character of substance in my books. Dickens said his characters illustrated the good and bad side of him. I think it’s more nuanced than that. There’s certainly some of me in Tom, generally being good and straightforward but also bending the rules at times when it’s in a good cause. But overall I try to make the people on the page – I don’t feel I create them, just write down the movie in which they’re playing – quite independent of me or anyone I know in real life.

What non-literary inspirations have influenced your writing?

There are probably two big influences that have nothing to do with books. There’s Leeds itself, and its history. That’s a constant source of fascination, and the more I research, the more I discover about the place. I want to make it come to life for people, whether it’s Edwardian, as in The Molten City, the Georgian era of the Richard Nottingham books, or the 1950s of the Dan Markham novels. Leeds is an elusive beast and I’m still vainly trying to fully capture it with its varying, changing faces, as well as the essence of the people who live here.

That ties in with my family history, the other large factor. My ancestors arrived here from East Yorkshire (they originated in a tiny little farming village then moved to a country market town) in the 1820s. Until my father, they’d always lived in very working-class areas, neighbourhoods that are often the backdrop to parts of my novels. So in a way, I’m tracing my own family’s footsteps in the books and discovering them.
Learn more about the book and author at Chris Nickson's website.

--Marshal Zeringue