THE WRITING DESK
Tony Riches Guest Interview with Janet Roger
I'm pleased to welcome historical fiction author Janet Roger
to The Writing Desk:
Tell us about Shamus Dust.
Well, I thought, what about letting someone else do that, and look at how the book’s first reviewers recapped the storyline? It’s been really interesting to see the initial reactions. Here’s one that I think nails it, and in a record few words: Imagine Polanski's masterpiece, Chinatown played out against the bomb sites and grimy alleys of a freezing 1947 London. I really hadn’t thought about the parallels before, but on reflection they’re spot on. Like Chinatown, Shamus Dust unfolds as a dark tale driven by greed and the sense of impunity of the powerful. Both are stories of deviant wealth and civic corruption at the highest level. Both involve criminal sexuality. Both descend into routine murder for the cover-up, and both are told as an intimate noir mystery that unravels through the eyes of the gumshoe who’s on the case. You can read the full review and lots of others on my website.
What is your preferred writing routine?
An admission. I have a mortal terror of routine in all things. It drives me completely nuts. I’m an itinerant of long standing, so writing - like everything else - gets done on the hoof wherever I happen to be. Also in the expectation that I’ll want to be somewhere else very soon. There, got that off my chest! But please don’t imagine that I don’t take writing seriously. I do. I tend to be very serious about the things I give my time to. The other side of that coin is learning to let the less important things go hang.
What advice do you have for new writers?
I really wouldn’t presume, except to say don’t take your writing (or yourself!) lightly. On the other hand, coming from me that’s more of a general prescription for life. So I’ll keep my own counsel, borrow from a title of Joan Didion’s and say, play it as it lays for you. After all, in the end what else is going to work? As well as tending to be serious about what interests me, I tend to be seriously pragmatic.
What have you found to be the best way to raise awareness of your books?
Can I adapt an old advertising saw about this? You’ll see clearly that - somehow - one half of the promotional effort expended on your book is working. You’ll just never know which half. At different times, Shamus Dust has kept three literary publicists slogging; on the whole it gets more five-star reviews than not; and for better or worse, anything you see on my website or Facebook or Twitter really does comes from me, myself, in person. What part of all that is best at raising awareness? I’d love you to tell me. For anyone who can, a fortune awaits.
Tell us something unexpected you discovered during your research.
It’s interesting, isn’t it, how the unexpected things are often the ones you remember? Shamus Dust plays out in London’s square mile of high finance called The City - Wall Street across the pond - in the early years of the Cold War. Hundreds of its acres, some of the most valuable on the planet, are still rubble after wartime bombing. City fortunes are staked on their reconstruction. Cue a story of racketeering, high-risk fraud, police collusion and a chain of murders. Much of that background is real enough. You’ll find it in accounts of the time. London was a dark, violent city in the postwar, a place where veterans who didn’t easily fit back in had been trained to handle a gun. That much I knew. But a feel for the times needs more. Then quite by chance I found myself in Sydney, at a harborside film festival that called itself Brit Noir. On the program, twenty and more British-made movies, some even set in and around the City, that featured the disillusion, the dark side and the crime of exactly those years that interested me. The manners, the looks, the dress were up there onscreen; the accents, the idiom and the prejudices as their original audiences heard them. I still buy a ticket wherever they’re shown. A discovery? No kidding. Falling over those fabulous movies in Sydney? I couldn’t believe my luck.
What was the hardest scene you remember writing?
Good question. Many were quite tough, not so much in the doing but in the deciding to do. That’s to say that I find the hardest part - not always but often - can be deciding the scene. I mean the when and the how of it, who’s involved and where it’s headed. I have no time at all for scenes (my own or anyone else’s) that simply park the narrative, characters and setting to no purpose. Mostly, once a scene’s function is decided, the first draft seems to write fairly straightforwardly. Of course there are exceptions, and my feeling is that when that happens, the chances are I’ve made a wrong call and better rethink from scratch. But I’d better answer your question. I’m tempted to say that the short intro on page one was on my mind for the longest time. Certainly it was a special joy when a recent review gave a sizable quote from it. See what you think. You can read the intro on my website or hear John Reilly narrate it. American listeners will likely recognize the voice.
What are you planning to write next?
I’m well on with a sequel to Shamus Dust called The Gumshoe’s Freestyle, set six months later in the City of London (of course), in the summer of ’48. Those immediate postwar 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 connection planted toward the close of Shamus Dust, though you do have to know your Raymond Chandler pretty well to spot it. I liked the idea of some oblique, passing link between events that Newman (my shamus) and Marlowe will never know they shared an interest in. That said, Freestyle stands on its own and takes our private eye to an entirely new case. It’s been interesting to decide 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 The Writing Desk - 10 October 2019