Interview with Haylen Beck / Stuart Neville

Jon: Stuart, this book is really different than anything I’ve read by you. Is that why you are publishing under a pseudonym?

Stuart: Yes, but it’s also to do with the American setting. It’s one of the peculiarities of crime fiction that authors tend to become associated with a locale. Ian Rankin is inseparable from Edinburgh, for example. I’ve become associated with Belfast, for better or worse, and only RATLINES varies from that – and even then, Dublin’s only eighty miles away. So to set a book in Arizona was quite a departure in itself. And yes, the style is quite different. It’s a thriller, but it’s more high concept and overtly commercial than anything I’ve written before.

Another factor is the branding that’s been done by Vintage Books in the UK and Soho Press in America. Both publishers have worked very hard to establish a look to the book covers and so on, but that branding wouldn’t have suited HERE AND GONE at all. I was conscious that this departure could undermine all the work both Vintage and Soho have done, so the more I thought about it, the more a pen name began to make sense.

I put a lot of thought into the name itself. I wanted to be nearer the top of the alphabet, so closer to eye level in bookstores, whereas Neville tends to put me at knee level in a lot of places! I also wanted something fairly gender neutral. In the end I went with an amalgam of two of my favourite guitarists: Eddie Van Halen and Jeff Beck. Then I just stuck a Y in there to make it Haylen Beck!

Jon: HERE AND GONE has such heavy suspense and it is frightening on a deep level. What was it like having this rolling around in your head?

Stuart: I actually enjoy delving into the scary stuff. I especially like writing from the point of view of my villains. Figuring out who they are as human beings, what makes them do the things they do, is possibly my favourite aspect of writing. I firmly believe that every villain is the hero of his own story; as far as he’s concerned, he’s right and everyone else is wrong. What that says about me, I don’t know.

Having said that, there are places I won’t go. HERE AND GONE centres around children in peril, and I know for some people, that can be a difficult subject. But I hope the reader understands that there’s a sort of contract between me and her. When she picks up my book, I’m making her a promise that I’m going to take her on a journey that may be terrifying, but that it will end in a satisfying way. I don’t always promise a happy ending, but I’ll do my best to make the reader glad she stuck with me that far.

Jon: I understand you had a line of dialogue that stuck with you and while in Arizona the idea come to you for the rest of the book. What was it about the location the got the electricity flowing in the brain?

Stuart: It started with: “There’s a man who’ll pay me a million dollars a child.” That line popped into my head one night, along with a few more sentences, and I wrote them down in the notes app note in my phone. Over the following few days, a story began to develop around those few words, who was saying them, who he was saying them to. I knew then that I wanted to set the story in small-town Arizona, having visited the area a few times before. About a week later, I met my UK agent at the Theakstons Old Peculier crime festival in Harrogate, England, and I showed him the lines and explained the idea. He liked it, but reminded me I had other commitments, so we agreed to set it aside for the time being.

About a year after that, I was invited to speak to a class at Northern Arizona University, Flagstaff, who were reading my debut novel as part of their course. By luck, it coincided with a reading I was doing at the great Poisoned Pen bookstore in Scottsdale, and also a Van Halen concert in Phoenix! It so happened that the gentleman who invited me to Flagstaff was also from Northern Ireland, and he kindly agreed to drive me from Phoenix up to Flagstaff, then back down to Scottsdale, making a two day road trip of it. I spent the journey taking notes and photographs, and many of the details wound up in HERE AND GONE. Things like the roadside convenience store and the bald eagle seen across a dry lakebed. I put a photo gallery from that trip up on my website at haylenbeck.com.

Jon: Will you be alternating between what we now think of as Stuart Neville style books and the new Haylen Beck books?

That’s the plan, though it hasn’t quite worked out so far. I’m contracted for one more book from each name, and I was supposed to be working on another Serena Flanagan book set in Belfast before the second Haylen Beck. Unfortunately the Flanagan book didn’t work out, so I’ve set it aside to work on the second Haylen Beck. It’s another standalone thriller, this time set in New York.
The ideal would be to write two novels a year, which I still want to try to do, but sometimes a story gets away from you, or life throws up its own roadblocks. But I’m almost done on the new Haylen Beck, and I’ve got a solid idea for the next Flanagan, so I hope to get back on schedule.

Jon: Where did Audra Kinney and Danny Lee come from?

Audra and Danny both took shape in the year between first conceiving of this book and actually sitting down to write it. I guess that’s an advantage of the time spent just thinking about it. Audra’s past is much more complicated than it otherwise might have been. She’s got more than her fair share of dirty laundry, even setting aside her abusive ex-husband. She has a history of addiction and anxiety that left her vulnerable to him, and he exploits her weaknesses until she gathers the strength to finally leave him.

Danny went through a few iterations. I always knew he wouldn’t be a “good guy” in the traditional sense. He’s not there to be a knight in shining armour. In fact, his reasons for helping Audra are purely selfish, at least to begin with. I also knew I didn’t want Danny to be from the same kind of background as me. I received a lot of help from my good friend Henry Chang, whom your readers might know for his Chinatown series. Henry helped me with how Danny stands in his own community, how he relates to others and they to him. Quite a few people who’ve read the book have said they’d like to see more of Danny in the future, which is something I’ll have to think about.

Jon: The way this story builds is pretty amazing. Reading it feels like being in a car that keeps speeding up and won’t slow down. And while reading you are so caught up in the book you don’t notice how much faster it’s going until it’s too late to stop and you have to finish the book. Were there any tricks you used to make this happen?

I don’t do many writing workshops, but when I do, I talk about the interconnection between plot and character. The story is always driven by the characters and their desires. If the antagonist’s and protagonist’s desires are clear and powerful, and in conflict with one another, then a propulsive plot is almost inevitable. Really the story becomes an examination of how far each character will go in pursuit of their desires. Will he kill in pursuit of his? Would she die in pursuit of hers? It’s finding those extremes that puts the juice in a story.

 Aside from that, I tend to write fairly short paragraphs and chapters, which encourages the reader to think, oh, just one more page, when they might otherwise put the book down. It’s not a calculated thing; it’s just the way I write. That, and my writing style is generally pretty lean. Clarity is the thing. When it comes to style, my one piece of writing advice – whether you’re writing literary, crime, romance, whatever- is always strive for clarity. Nine out of ten notes I get back from editors come down to me not getting my intent across, and the fix is to add clarity.

Jon: If you were to give this book a soundtrack what would be on it?

Stuart’s office.

Oh, some dusty Americana, I guess. I did set out to write a soundtrack album to go with the book – I’ve been a musician and composer in my previous life – but I just didn’t get the time. Think rootsy percussion and slide guitars, Ry Cooder style melodies.

Jon: You’ve had great response to all your previous work. Are you at all nervous about this new book with a different style?

A little. I guess it’s always risky for an established writer or artist – though I don’t feel particularly established – to try something different. Particularly as I’m known, I think, for darker, more brooding stories. I’m often labeled as noir, though I think that label is seldom correctly applied. It’s usually just a word to make what we do sound fancy. So a step in a more overtly commercial direction could bother some people, but I can’t really concern myself with that. This is the story I wanted to tell, and how I wanted to tell it. As much as I appreciate my readers, I can’t let their expectations shape what I do. I can only tell the best story I’m able to get down on paper.

Jon: David Morrel gave a great talk a few years back and mentioned something he calls the elevator pitch. If you had to try and get someone interested in this book in three lines what would you say?

A woman is arrested by a small-town sheriff and separated from her children. When she demands to know where they are, his only reply is, “What children?”

Jon: Will you be touring for the new book?

Yes, I’ll be touring the U.S. in June, starting off with a launch at New York’s Mysterious Bookshop on Tuesday 20th, then it’s on to Boswell Books in Milwaukee, Tattered Cover in Denver, Poisoned Pen in Scottsdale, and finally Murder by the Book in Houston. They’re all great bookstores who have given me tremendous support over the years, and I look forward to coming back.

Jon: Thanks for the great book and for keeping up all night reading!

Thanks, Jon, for the kind words, and also for the continued support of Crimespree, I really appreciate it!

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