UK author Nick Stone landed on the noir crime fiction scene with a bang. His debut thriller MR. CLARINET garnered wide praise and two literary awards, the 2006 Crime Writers of America Ian Fleming Steel Dagger, and 2007’s International Thriller Writers Best First Novel. Laser-like dialogue, gruesome crime scenes, and whipsaw pacing are hallmarks of Stone’s style, wielded with great effect for his followup novel, KING OF SWORDS, which released December 2. His scruffy everyman protagonist Max Mingus has struck a chord with demanding thriller readers, no easy feat in a saturated genre.
But his quick rise to the top of must-read thriller lists wasn’t without it’s bumps. Stone mastered the craft of writing the way most of us do: trial and error, studying the masters, and dogged hard work. A wicked sense of humor has also supported him through those years in the wilderness, when most writers either give up or get published. Luckily, it was the latter for Stone.
Please enjoy the first part of our two-part interview with Nick Stone.
Q: Tell us about your road to publication
Nick Stone: My road to publication is a long, crooked, deeply rutted dirt track which suddenly, at the very end, becomes an airport runway.
I started writing when I was 11. Crime fiction. Yup, I was precocious. I’d watched an adaptation of Hammett’s Dain Curse on tv, with James Coburn in the lead role. The next day I started writing my first “novel”. It was a crime/horror hybrid. All the characters became vampires – including the narrator. Like I said, I was precocious. Good thing I grew out of that: from Pasteur to The Ramones, pioneers never get thanked in their lifetimes.
I spent the next twenty odd years trying to finish a novel. I thought I wanted to be a literary writer. Big mistake. I tried to read like whoever I was impressed with at the time. I sent some stuff out and got a rainforest’s worth of rejection slips back. I actually remember doing a mass mailing once and hearing the responses literally landing with a thud. It actually made me laugh at the time. I’m part-Scottish, part-Haitian, which means I can find humour in the bleakest and blackest of times. It’s in my DNA.
I should point out that during those twenty years of “development”, I didn’t read much crime fiction. I’d stopped in 1980, after devouring all of Ed McBain’s books. I’d read other things. I didn’t start reading crime again until 1993, when a work colleague recommended James Ellroy’s Black Dahlia to me.
Nothing was ever the same for me. I completely gave up on wanting to write literary fiction.
Then I went to Haiti between 1996 and 1997. While I was there I got the basic idea for my first novel, Mr Clarinet. It was very loosely based on an actual child kidnapping. I didn’t start writing it until late 1998, long after I’d got back to England. It was going pretty well. After twenty years of trying to find my voice I’d discovered it.
And then a happy disaster struck: I met the woman who’d become my wife. That was on May 22nd 1999. Courtship etc ensued. It’s a bit difficult trying to write a dark crime book when you’re falling in love at the height of summer (that was when we still had dry, hot summers in England – and summer in London, in the right circumstances, can be just superb), so work was suspended. For about three and a half years.
Slow-forward to January 31st 2003 and I started writing Mr Clarinet. I already had an agent in mind. Lesley Thorne, who I knew socially. She told me to send her 80 pages and an outline. In July 2004 – about two months after I’d finished the first draft of Mr Clarinet – Lesley got me a publishing deal.
Q: Your novels are laced with plenty of twists and turns and a fair dose of graphic violence. What drew you to writing thrillers and crime fiction?
NS: Well, it’s goes back to first reading James Ellroy. It was the proverbial Damascene moment. Pure alchemy. Here was a book which could be read on several levels – as a very dark and bleak crime novel, as literature, as a meditation on obsession. I’d never read anything like Ellroy. It was the literary equivalent of, I suppose, hearing Ornette Coleman’s Free Jazz for the first time. I don’t use the comparison lightly. I think Ellroy shattered my every preconception about crime fiction – that it was light and fluffy, that the square jawed hero always won and got the girl, that it was badly written; he’d turned the genre inside out.
Q: Your debut MR. CLARINET garnered great reviews and literary prizes. Was living up to these expectations intimidating when you were writing your followup KING OF SWORDS?
NS: Not at all. I’d started King of Swords six or seven months before Mr Clarinet came out, so I was well into it when the book took off. And, to be perfectly honest with you, I knew that I could improve on my debut with the follow-up. That’s what I aim to do – write a better book than the last one.
Q: Why did you decide to do a “prequel” in the life of your detective protagonist Max Mingus for your second book?
NS: Someone – very flatteringly – suggested that I did this for commercial reasons, you know, sell both books again, so to speak.
Really not true. I wish I were that commercially savvy. When I started writing Mr Clarinet in 1998, it was going to be a 1000 page book, starting in the Miami of 1980 and ending up in Haiti in 1997. I always intended to go back and finish telling that story, from the beginning.
And if you want to go one floor lower, it might be some sort of subliminal tribute to James Ellroy, because I read the LA Quartet out of sync.
Q: Is place important for your inspiration? Does place inform plot for you?
NS: King of Swords is set in the Miami of the early 1980s. I find Miami hugely inspiring. It’s Vegas without the gambling, LA without the film industry, New York without the intellect – pure sensation, and, therefore, a hedonistic hub. Not that I go there to party. I’m too old and way too married for that.
Location is very important to the books I write. It’s very much a central character, a deus ex-machina almost.
In Part Two, Stone talks about his encounter with voodoo and the tarot, his opinion on why there’s a certain snobbery regarding genre fiction, and his advice to aspiring thriller authors. Don’t miss it!