Sandra Ruttan interviews John Rickards

Originally run in Crimespree issue 13, Jul 2006

John Rickards Interviewed by Sandra Ruttan

John Rickards is one of the most talented voices to emerge in the crime fiction genre since the turn of the century. I was delighted to have the opportunity to ask John about his new online venture, twisted sense of humor, views on religion, and the future of his series featuring former FBI agent, Boston PI Alex Rourke.

Sandra Ruttan: You seem to have made an unusual choice, in that you set your books in the US instead of the UK. Why did you decide to do that?

John Rickards: Guns. Your side of the Pond has all the guns. And the US has much more variation in its settings. We’re so crammed in here that you couldn’t do a book like “Winter’s End” (WE) or “The Touch of Ghosts” (TTOG) in the UK. Not realistically.

S.R.: Have made any cultural or location-based mistakes?

J.R.: I got pulled up on the use of brickwork, but even that was a ‘maybe’, since WE’s a fictional place. I’m dreading Lehane-ophiles reading “The Darkness Inside” (TDI), since a large part of it’s set in Boston, but up until now I’ve done okay.

S.R.: TDI is scheduled for release in November. What’s the premise and why was this a difficult book to write?

J.R.: It’s about an old child abduction/murder case from Al’s Bureau days. A few of the bodies were never found and now the guy responsible is about to pop his clogs from cancer, so people are hoping to get the info from him before he dies. And then things go a bit wrong, as they are wont to do.
It was difficult partly because it took me ages to properly get into it. Then some other stuff came up outside (of) writing and I ended up taking a 5-month break, which made it even harder to pick it up again. There was a lot of editing and reworking to be done on it. About 18 months, I think, the process from beginning to end.
It’s turned into what I reckon is a very, very good book, easily the strongest of the series, and takes a different direction to the other two, which is nice.

S.R.: When you wrote TTOG did you feel pressure to live up to expectations because of WE?

J.R.: Yeah, of course. There’s a saying, “second book blues” describing a drop in quality between an authors’s first and second books because they relax too much. I wanted to avoid that.

S.R.: Do you keep an ideas file for future reference?

J.R.: I’ve got a couple of text files on here somewhere with individual bits on them, but I lose things very easily so they mostly just disappear into the ether.

S.R.: Do you ever think there’d be potential for a side-series novel, following Robin Garrett?

J.R.: A book about Rob? It hadn’t occurred to me, to be honest. It might work, but you’d have to read the third in the series to understand some of my reticence.

S.R.: Why did you decide to write in first person narrative? Do you think you’ll ever try your hand at third?

J.R.: I’ve done third before in book form. Not, obviously, in published book form. First works for the Rourke stories, and I like it in some types of crime story because you can’t cheat the reader with it. They see what the character sees. You can’t weasel out of stuff by cutting to another person or having the character suddenly know about stuff off-camera as it were.

S.R.: Why did you pick a character significantly older than you? You were how old when you wrote WE, and Alex was what? 35?

J.R.: I was 23 and he was 35, but in those heady days in Corsica it didn’t seem to matter so long as we lov… Sorry. Yeah, I was 23. For him to be an experienced guy in a law enforcement career first, then a second one afterwards, mid-30s just made sense. And at the time, just about any character I wrote would’ve had to be older than me.

S.R.: You’ve been working on the next book already. What is “Twelve” about?

J.R.: I can say next to nothing, except that the reason it’s got “Twelve” as a working title is that it all takes place over the course of one night, in one place, with one set of people. 12 people. 12 secrets. 12 murders. 12 hours.

S.R.: Anyone who knows you knows you have a wild sense of humor. Why don’t we see more of it in your writing?

J.R.: Too much planning’s involved in writing books and while I have my moments, they tend to be too unplanned to make it work in written form. That said, the concepts alone of Hardboiled Jesus or Cthulhu Holmes make me laugh like a twat, so I do do it, just in short form.
I’d love to do a longer version of the John Rain, diaper-wearer “Clean my poo, Harry” thing that came up in a conversation on Paul Guyot’s website last year, but Barry Eisler would have me slain in some horrible manner and my body dumped in a shallow grave.

S.R.: Do you feel you have more flexibility with your short stories?

J.R.: Yeah. Because those I write almost entirely for my own amusement. The only ones that I’ve done for print have been one in “Dublin Noir” and one for “Fuck Noir”. The ideas are free to mess around with in a way I can’t do in full-length stuff. Basically, shorts are an excuse for me to fuck around. Although, that said, the “Dublin Noir” one is based on a true story.

S.R.: Where did the idea for the Hardboiled Jesus stories come from?

J.R.: I remember thinking the phrase “I died for your sins, you fuck” was enormously funny, alongside the image of Jesus pounding someone’s teeth into a wall. The rest wrote itself.

S.R.: And you’re worried about retribution from Barry Eisler, not God?

J.R.: I believe in Barry, that’s the difference. He knows judo. He’d snap me in two and make it look like suicide.

S.R.: Setting religious beliefs aside, do you think the concept of religion has an interesting place in crime fiction, in so much as many of the religions address issues related to crime and punishment, or revenge?

J.R.: Possibly, yeah, although no more than any other concepts (like) secular law and morality. Religion makes for a good bad guy in a lot of ways, and a good setting. I don’t know about a good focus, although the Father Dowling Mysteries were always good fun. And Cadfael.
Although the latter was because you knew he used to be a Crusader and if he got too pissed off he could go berserk and start hacking people to death, which was never really an issue with Tom Bosley.

S.R.: You’re about to move to a new house. How important is it to you to set up an office and get comfortable with your environment? Will you still write at the bar?

J.R.: Office? I know no such word. I’ll have my bit of the flat, my fiancé will have hers. It’s all been carefully planned so we both get personal space. Otherwise, it’s not that important for me to have a comfortable working environment. Distraction is the main issue. Which is why the pub’s nice. Quiet during the day, and apart from the odd bit of chatter with Dave, the barman, or his family, nothing to interrupt.

S.R.: How do you structure your day as a writer? Do you have a set schedule? Force yourself to write no matter what?

J.R.: I mostly work at the pub in the afternoons, but not on any particular set timing. Apart from that, I aim to do 1,500 words a day or better, but that’s it.

S.R.: You recently got engaged. How hard do you find it to maintain day-to-day life when you’re writing?

J.R.: It’s easy enough. She works, I work, and I work around her time most days. Sometimes I’ll have stuff to do in the evenings or after she’s gone to bed, but that’s not much of an issue, in part because I like to make sure it doesn’t happen often enough for it to be much of an issue.

S.R.: Which authors have had the biggest influence on your career?

J.R.: Biggest influence… I don’t know. I didn’t read much crime before I started writing and I’m an uneducated oik, English-wise, anyway, so I never had any “ooooh, I used to read this at college and it was soooooo touching” kind of thing.

Probably Chuck Palahniuk. Doesn’t come across in the writing at all, but there it is. Raymond Chandler, too, though everybody says him.

S.R.: Here’s an easy one. Name the last five great books you read that you wished you’d written.

J.R.: Hahaha! Yeah, easy, right. Let’s see… “Pattern Recognition” by William Gibson. Beautifully written. “Transmetropolitan” by Warren Ellis. Fantastic stuff and monkey sex references. “Survivor” by Chuck Palahniuk. “Spares” by Michael Marshall Smith. Fifth place is a toss-up between three. Another Ellis one, “Planetary”, Brian Michael Bendis’s “Powers” and Brian Azzarello’s “100 Bullets”.

S.R.: In February you launched the Mystery Circus (MC). Can you explain what it is and why you created it?

J.R.: It’s an attempt at a central hub/community for all that’s cool in crime fiction. Pointers to what’s good and what’s interesting, with a creator-led community behind it. Which sounds very high and mighty, but basically means a forum with a high proportion of writers as opposed to readers and a good signal-to-noise ratio.
As for why, the reason is because there was no such thing before. I want to find out what’s cool to read and who’ll be keeping me entertained in the years to come. There was no central place to find that stuff. Graham Powell’s done it for the blog side of things with Crimespot, though it’s one-way only, and we all know Sarah Weinman’s blog as the big one for crime… but there wasn’t really a big central melting pot type place to find as much of the new good shit as possible.
Nor a central forum that isn’t constantly being swamped by off-topic threads about politics, cats owned, or thousands of reading lists.

S.R.: One of the things that struck me about MC is the willingness of authors to participate and speak freely. Since writing is such an isolating activity, it seems you’ve created a community for writers to interact more than just when they see each other at conferences. Was that part of the objective?

J.R.: Very much so. The whole talk-amongst-writers thing at conferences is a lot of fun, but hasn’t happened so much online. Some authors I know are a little edgy about saying stuff in that kind of setting that comes back to haunt them later, or about exposing themselves to endless reams of unwelcome attention.
I was aiming for a “bar at a convention” atmosphere when sorting out MC and its tone. Serious conversation as needed, daft as not, and reasonably personal and comfortable for all involved. Hence having a chunk that’s “creators only” for starting threads, just in case of topic churn.

S.R.: You have a website, a blog, and now the Mystery Circus. How important do you think an online presence is for an author? Or do you do this purely for your own amusement?

J.R.: I think it is important to have a presence of some sort online, and it’s only going to get more and more important as time goes on. I’d like to be somewhere at the front end of that game.

For more information about John Rickards, visit his website at www.johnrickards.com, his blog, http://johnrickards.blogspot.com/ or the Mystery Circus at www.mysterycircus.com.