In conversation with... Neil White

Hi Neil! First of all, I would like to congratulate you on the publication of The Darkness Around Her, the second book in the Dan Grant trilogy! Can you please briefly tell us what it is about?

A: Thank you very much, Silvia, and for the invitation to your blog.

For those who don’t know, Dan Grant is a defence lawyer in a small northern town, some forgotten place in the hills, who does what lawyers do: he defends the innocent. Or at least those he hopes are innocent. His investigator is Jayne Brett, a former client acquitted of a murder after her boyfriend was killed and she was holding the knife.

The Darkness Around Her had as its inspiration the rumours of a serial killer stalking the Manchester canals. The so-called “Pusher” who keeps on getting press attention.

What intrigued me about the canals, as the setting for a murder novel, was the peace of the water, the barges travelling at a crawl, grasses trailing along the surface, but someone can travel unseen, unmonitored. No cameras, no traffic lights, no ANPR. Just the water running through the centre of towns, the barges cruising slowly.

As for a general plot summary, a man is awaiting trial for a murder but he won’t talk to his lawyer. As Dan Grant looks into the case, he uncovers a sinister history and puts himself, and others, in danger.

Did you have the plot entirely figured out when you started writing the book or did it take an unexpected turn as the characters grew on the page?

A: I am not very good at plotting. I have a vague idea when I start, and I know major plot points, but that is it. I know I can start once I have the first fifth or so in my head, as I have a direction, but I don’t have the attention span to think further ahead.

My defence for this kind of haphazard approach is that to plot densely means that you might rule out a better idea further along. I work on the assumption that when I get stuck, something will occur to me to rescue me. I’ve got lucky so far, and haven’t had to ditch a book, but I feel relieved when I get to the end because I know I’ve got away with it once more.

With The Darkness Around Her, the whole premise of the book changed a few times, as did some points along the way, and the finished book is very different from the first draft.

Part of that is due to the advice received during the editing process. I never assume that my ideas are perfect, and my assumption is that if the only other person to read it has some quibbles, then there are some things worth quibbling about.

What kind of research did you have to do for this book? Do you enjoy this process or is it just a means to an end?

A: This will make me sound lazy, but not too much. I do enjoy research, and it’s one of the downsides of writing legal thrillers is that I have much of the information in my head. As well as a crime novelist, I’m also a criminal solicitor. I started out as a defence lawyer, until I switched sides to the prosecution, where I worked for eighteen years as a Senior Crown Prosecutor.

I gave up my job three years ago to concentrate on writing but still work as a freelance criminal lawyer, and I appear in court most days. To some extent, therefore, writing legal thrillers is a busman’s holiday. I may branch out and try my hand at other things eventually, but I am still ploughing a legal furrow for the time being.

An example of how I like my research is my non-crime novel, Lost In Nashville, which was a very personal novel of a jaded lawyer taking his estranged father on a trip to visit Johnny Cash’s life, travelling his life from birth to death and some of the places he sang about. That is the novel I enjoyed writing the most, just because the research was so interesting.

If this novel could be turned into a film, who would you cast in the role of Dan?

A: If I’m honest, I think of Dan as me but twenty years younger, so it’s hard to envisage a particular actor. If I ever think about it, it’s usually someone from Emmerdale or Coronation Street, because it would have to be a northern actor.

I quite liked the actor who played the young Mr Nasty in Coronation Street, who ended up buried in Gail Platt’s garage. He would be good.

Without giving too much away, can you tell us about a scene in the book that you love or that was particularly difficult to write?

A: I find most scenes difficult to write and rarely end up loving any of them. I keep tweaking and messing and trying to improve, and I don’t often finish a scene and think “that is a great scene”. When I read something years later, I quite like them, because I’ve forgotten the work that went into writing them, or the way they were torn to shreds and rebuilt during the editing process, and just see the words. At the time though, I see just the late nights and the worry that it isn’t good enough.

Is there anything that didn’t make it into the final version of the book?

A: Some violence deemed to be too gratuitous.

I quite like gory books, and I think if a reader winces I’ve done a good job, but I respect my editors. If they tell me something is excessive or exploitative or just too much, I’m always willing to listen and try to rewrite them.

There are some scenes in my older books I wouldn’t write now, and probably wouldn’t get published now. In the past, I was probably guilty of going for The Marathon Man effect, which is how I see it. I call it that because if you ask anyone if they have seen the film, whenever the answer is yes, they will always wince and refer to the teeth scene. I wanted the books to be memorable, to stand out, so perhaps went for the violence too excessively at times, but that is part of the learning curve of being a writer.

If you are already working on your next writing project, would you mind giving us a little anticipation of what we are to expect?

A: The final instalment in the Dan Grant series is the next immediate thing, with a working title of Innocence, although that might change. It is due out in April from Hera Books.

As for new projects, I am working on a new series that is legally-based but a little different from most. It is still very early days with it though so I’m not going to reveal anything as I might change my mind or drop it altogether, but I like the idea. It is not like anything else out there that is legal, I’m fairly sure of that.

If it doesn’t come to pass, I have some other ideas, but only time will tell in the end. I’ll keep on writing and keep on going to court and just see how it all works out.

Due to the popularity of social networking websites, interacting with readers – be it via Twitter, Facebook Instagram etc. – is becoming increasingly important. How do you cope with these new demands on authors and do you think that they somehow disrupt your writing schedule?

A: I find social media a bit of a mixed bag. I don’t often post anything book-related, and I’m usually just messing around if I do post anything. I’m not convinced Twitter sells many books and too much attention is devoted to it, as well as it becoming an increasingly hostile place. There is very little “social” about social media, which is why I like Instagram the most, as it is just lots of pretty pictures, even if they are often idealised versions of how people want to present their lives.

If I stopped writing, I’d come off social media altogether. I don’t do as much of it as I’m supposed to do, I know that. There are some people who are extremely savvy about social media, but I don’t have the time to do the research to help me get savvy. One of the advantages of having a dual career is that my whole life doesn’t become about selling books, which mean I can focus on the stuff I enjoy doing, and posting cat pictures.

What one piece of advice would you give to aspiring writers?

A: Assume what you have just written is garbage. Rewrite it. Read books that give you advice on writing, then rewrite it again. Keep rewriting it until you can no longer improve it. At that point, you are as good as you’re going to be at that point in your career. For some, it won’t be good enough to get published. For others, it will. And you can always go indie if it doesn’t work out. Not being liked enough by a handful of commissioning editors doesn’t mean it won’t be loved by thousands of ebook readers, and there are countless indie authors who wouldn’t have it any other way.

Thank you for your time!

A: My pleasure.


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