Updated: Mar 25
After reading that rare thing, a literary crime story, I'm thrilled to welcome historical fiction author Janet Roger to BookPhace:
You are a new writer to me so I wonder if we could begin with a little background, and your writing journey?
Well, I’m a long-ago Eng. Lit. graduate who started as a lumberjack and wound up in the City of London. The City being that single square mile that sits inside London’s original Roman walls. Today it’s the capital’s financial center, its Wall Street if you like. As I get older, that journey from very tall trees to very tall buildings feels increasingly as if it happened to someone else. I’m sure I’m not alone in that, but still it’s an odd sensation. Anyway, I suppose the Eng. Lit. thing can go one of two ways: either you’ll be inspired into writing yourself or you’ll be too terrified even to think about it, because you know what went before. I paid my dues to the terrified club.
Secondly may I say how much I enjoyed Shamus Dust. I found it a most impressive debut. Can you tell us a little of its genesis?
You’re very kind to invite me. The answer to this one is quite complicated, but in the end it’s entirely about a time and a place. The Shamus Dust story is spun from a puzzling event I came across in that time spent in the City. It had happened in the early years of the Cold War, when hundreds of its acres were still flattened rubble from wartime bombing. You see, those blitz sites turned out to be archaeologists’ dreamland. For a few short years, digging there gave them unimagined access to the two-thousand years old Roman city right beneath their feet. And they wasted no time. Before reconstruction got seriously under way they’d made monumental discoveries: a Roman temple, a Roman fortress on the line of the wall, even the foundations of an arena - a Roman coliseum, no less. And there was the puzzle. The discovery of the temple and the fortress made instant splash headlines. Yet London’s very own Roman coliseum - yes, there really is one - got overlooked. Seriously! And then entirely forgotten about until a rainy day almost forty years later, when the drawings were noticed again in the archaeological record. That idea completely bowled me over. A Roman arena the size of a football field had simply been missed by the professionals! I suppose, since I’d been raised in Eng. Lit., it was natural to start imagining how the story might work as fiction. After all, it was hard to credit as fact. Shamus Dust, of course, tells it very differently. It goes back to the Cold War years, when rebuilding the City was up for grabs, fortunes were staked on a construction boom and those blitz sites were some of the most valuable real estate on the planet. In this telling, the interests include high-end racketeers as well as corrupt City grandees, who think delaying construction would be very bad karma indeed. Cue a monumental discovery on a construction site that nobody will get to hear of. Cue also the apparent vice killing that gets Shamus Dust under way. And then cue the hardboiled gumshoe who gets hired for the cover-up. A reviewer put it this way: Imagine Polanski's masterpiece, Chinatown played out against the bomb sites and grimy alleys of a freezing 1947 London. I can’t do better.
I thought the attention to detail was outstanding. It made the book very visual, very film-like for me. I wondered if the cinema of that genre has any influence on your writing?
Yes, it very definitely does. I’m an especial fan of that first, classic, Cold War period of film noir. In fact, I’m just now working out how to take myself from here (South Australia) to the Film Noir Foundation’s annual bash in San Francisco next January, called Noir City Film Festival. I came rather late to realizing how important those films had been for writing the women in Shamus Dust. Because, let’s face it, the hardboiled fiction of the same period - like the world it springs from - had a problem seeing rounded characters that weren’t straight and white and male. And yet women in films noirs, for example, often make astonishingly more nuanced and convincing portraits. Perhaps because, in the end, there was no escaping putting the role in the hands of a woman. On the one hand, Shamus Dust is a pastiche of the hardboiled style. On the other, its women are driving the story, which requires characterization beyond the range of ‘40s detective fiction. Film noir, I think, shows how to do that and yet stay within the terms of the genre. Needless to say, the camerawork of those movies - and its fetish for bright silvers and ink-black shadows - influences the wintry mood of Shamus Dust throughout.
I loved the snow leitmotiv throughout especially when the thaw sets in towards the end of the book, and I found it very powerful in creating a mood. Hard Winter - Cold War - Cool Murder - all appeal to the wordsmith in me! Was that a clear intention from the outset?
How I wish I could tell you I had it all mapped out from the start! It’s not that I don’t make lists, you understand, just that I’m first-class at never paying them any attention. Yes, that snowy, freezing London of the story makes me shiver too, and it was a real one. The whole of Shamus Dust moves the events it’s spun from, something like five years back in time, to Christmas and New Year 1947. That monster winter though, is from a year earlier still. Photos and newsreels of the time show you stunning pictures of immense blizzards that went on and on. The sea froze off England’s east coast! The snowscapes are irresistible, so I borrowed them. I think the slow thaw that sets in arrived quite naturally as the story began to resolve. As for the subtitle, I’m glad you like it. The book was complete when it dawned on me that English readers - especially those less ancient than I am - were having to look up what a shamus is. I thought they might need a gentle nudge that they were looking at a private eye noir.
The depiction of a post blitz London is palpable. Do you know that area of the city well? And can you tell us little of how you approached what must have been painstaking research?
Well yes, I had two separate spells in the City, so I was breathing the air (and noticing the last scars of wartime bombing still hidden away in corners). There are two thousand years crammed into that single square mile, so the history is hard to avoid. Also there was the marvellous Museum of London, Guildhall Library, and the bookstores and second-hand bazaars that were everywhere. In fact, any walk through the City is an involuntary history lesson. Now that I think about it, that was just as well, because we’re talking pre-internet search here. Shamus Dust was written and then shelved for years until I had time to go back and reconsider it (still a member of the terrified club). I don’t really see myself as a painstaking researcher, but - hands up - I’m basically incapable of passing by a museum or bookstore, and having a story to follow was a great excuse. I haven’t gone back in recent years, but last time I looked there seemed to be fewer London bookshops than I remembered. Sign of the times, no doubt, but such a shame.
It’s a book that requires the reader to pay attention. The story is intricate and I can’t begin to imagine how you went about plotting it! Could you tell us a little of the process?
Seat of the pants! I write scene by scene, let the arc of the story develop and follow where it leads. More inspiration than method, but I think you guessed that, didn’t you? The hardest part, I think, is more often deciding the scene. I mean the when and the how of it, who’s involved and where the immediate story is headed. I really have no time at all for scenes (my own or anyone else’s) that simply park the narrative, characters and setting to no purpose. Every scene ought to move the reader forward. A recent review really delighted me when it said, Don't make the mistake of skimming anything, there's a lot on every page and all of it is important. Don't blink or you might miss something … Once I’m decided about a scene’s function, the first draft will often write fairly straightforwardly. There are exceptions of course, and my feeling when that happens is that I’ve probably got it all wrong, had better go back to square one and rethink the whole thing. We’ll draw a veil over the endless self-editing.
A further example of your attention to detail was in your observations of people from an age gone by. They were very acute and accurate. These people almost stepped off the page at me. How did you go about achieving that?
This could be your hardest question yet. It’s true I’m very visual. I do paint and draw. And I picture a pattern on the ATM keypad because I can’t for the life of me remember a code - not a thing you admit to in the City! But you’ve put me in mind of Graham Greene describing the inspiration for his main characters in The Third Man (it gets still voted the best ever British film noir). I looked it up for you because it’s priceless, and coincidentally enough he wrote this in 1947: I walked all up Piccadilly and back, went in a gent’s in Brick Street, and suddenly in the gent’s, I saw the three characters…I hope to God it lasts. Now, Graham Greene is no slouch at research. But he knows that somewhere along the line you absolutely need to conjure some small magic from somewhere. Not from the Brick Street gent’s in my case, though probably from somewhere equally unlikely. I really haven’t a clue, but if I found some characters that worked for you, I couldn’t be happier.
How do you approach your writing? By that I am wondering if you have a special place, special time, any special routines and rituals?
A whispered admission. Because I imagine there must be something deeply Freudian about this. But the truth is, I have a mortal terror of routine. Even the idea of a ritual drives me completely nuts. I’m quite happy not writing for months on end, and then doing nothing but, when the spirit takes me. And since I’m also an unmitigated itinerant, writing - like everything else - gets done wherever I happen to be, in the hope I’ll be somewhere else tomorrow. Slow boats to distant ports tend to get a lot done. Does this sound like a notifiable disease to you? Perhaps we should keep it to ourselves.
9. I know that being an avid reader is almost compulsory for a writer so a question I always ask is if you can remember the first book you read that moved you to tears, if any?
As any lumberjack (probably forest worker, nowadays) can tell you, only gurrrls tear up. But now you mention it, I remember coming to the end of Sharon Penman’s The Sunne in Splendour at a tender age, and the sense of loss on turning the last page. The cure would have been to pick up the next volume and roll right on from the Plantagenets to the Tudors. But there was no next volume. So instead I started over again on the personal and political rivalries, the dynastic ambitions of powerful families and the war that inevitably followed. Did I enjoy it second time around? Every minute. Is it history? Not exactly. Did I care? No, but that was after a tear of frustration.
And finally having enjoyed this novel so much I am bound to ask when we can expect another new one! And is there anything you can tell us about it?
I’m quite well on with something that’s effectively a sequel to Shamus Dust. It’s called The Gumshoe’s Freestyle, set six months later in the City (of course), in the summer of ’48. Those Cold War years made interesting times. Freestyle ties up some loose ends, returns to some characters from the first story and develops with them. Actually, there’s a plant towards the close of Shamus Dust, though you do have to know your Raymond Chandler to spot it. I liked the idea of some passing link between two cases that Newman (the shamus, did I mention that?) and Marlowe will never know they shared an interest in. That said, Freestyle stands on its own and brings in an entirely new case. It’s been interesting deciding which characters to go back to, how fleeting or important they need to be, and of course, how to introduce them to a reader who doesn’t already know them from the earlier story.
This interview with Janet Roger was first published by BookPhace - 4 November 2019 https://bookphace.blogspot.com/2019/11/an-interview-with-janet-roger.html