|Name: SIMON BECKETT
Author of: THE CHEMISTRY OF DEATH (2006)
To celebrate the release of Simon Beckett’s fifth Dr David Hunter novel, The Restless Dead, I’m very pleased to welcome Simon to Reader Dad to talk about his books.
Simon Beckett worked as a property repairer, taught English in Spain and played percussion with several bands before becoming a novelist and freelance journalist. The Restless Dead is the fifth novel in the series starring forensic anthropologist, Dr David Hunter.
Thank you, Simon, for taking the time to chat with us.
As a newcomer to the David Hunter books, the first thing that struck me was the mention of his time spent at Tennessee’s infamous Body Farm. Can you tell us a bit about your experiences there, and how it influenced (assuming it did) the development of David Hunter?
I went to the Body Farm in 2002, when I was working full time as a freelance journalist. I’d heard about a research facility in Tennessee that used human cadavers to investigate the process of decomposition, and managed to get a commission to go there from the Daily Telegraph Magazine. They were carrying out a highly realistic training course for US police officers and CSIs, where crime scenes had been staged using real human bodies. One of them was a mock serial-killer scenario and involved excavating corpses that had been buried six months earlier. I thought I was only going to observe but on the last day one of the forensic scientists suggested I should get my hands dirty as well. So, I found myself in protective coveralls, mask, gloves and boots, helping the police officers recover one of the bodies from a woodland grave.
It was a grim but fascinating experience, and even after I’d returned home I couldn’t get what I’d seen out of my mind. Over the next year or so I developed the idea for The Chemistry of Death, the first in what would become my series about David Hunter, a troubled British forensic anthropologist who trained at the Body Farm and now worked in the UK. So my visit there had a very direct influence on both his character and the book itself.
The book necessarily contains a fair amount of technical detail about the process of decomposition. How much research is typically involved in writing one of the David Hunter novels?
The Hunter novels need a lot of research. Obviously, since I’m not a forensic anthropologist a lot of work goes into making David Hunter sound convincing. And as well as the forensic aspects each book involves finding out about a variety of a different subjects, from police procedure to what sort of aquatic scavengers live in salt marshes.
Some information is easily found online, and I’ve acquired a respectable collection of forensic text books I use as starting points. But I’m a great believer in asking real life experts for advice, because they can draw on actual experience and expertise. That gives the books a greater sense of authenticity, so I’m very grateful to these people for helping out.
The actual research itself is only part of it, though. The really hard part comes in trying to incorporate it naturally into a story, without it either sounding dry or taking over. A lot of material never gets used, but that’s better than weighing down the story with pages of factual information, no matter how fascinating it might be.
Geography plays an important part in The Restless Dead: the estuary and the isolated nature of the area driving the story and the nature of the local characters. How important do you feel geography/location is when writing?
The settings of my books are very important, particularly the Hunter series. I try to create a realistic sense of place that’s unique to each story – an isolated region of the Norfolk Broads for The Chemistry of Death, a Hebridean Island for Written in Bone, and so on. A good setting can help create atmosphere and mood, but it’s about more than just creating a backdrop. Until I can clearly picture where a book or scene is set I find it hard to start writing, so being able to visualise these places is crucial.
The majority of settings in my books are fictitious. I’ll generally locate them in a real area, such as Dartmoor, which means I’ll have to do research to make sure I capture the feel of wherever I’m writing about. But rather than restrict myself to describing an actual place, I prefer to create a landscape to fit the story. For me, the main thing is for readers to be able to ‘see’ these places and scenes, so it’s almost as if they’re there themselves. In that respect I treat the settings in the same way as I do my characters. Although they don’t actually exist, I want people to believe they could.
Considering David Hunter’s bleak history, The Restless Dead has something of a surprise ending. What’s next for the forensic anthropologist? Have you planned much in advance, or do you take each book as it comes?
As a rule, I take each one as it comes. I’m usually wary of ‘surprise endings’, unless it’s something that’s been carefully set-up in the narrative. I’m all for twists and shocks – I do my best to try and wrong-foot readers so they don’t know what’s coming. But the seeds of it need to be sown well in advance. If a book throws up something that leaves the reader feeling perplexed or short-changed – especially at the end – then the author hasn’t done their job properly.
For The Restless Dead I had the final scene in my head for a long time, so I was able to construct the story very much with that in mind. And since some events from this book will carry on to the next, I thought it was a good note to end on. Hopefully readers will feel the same way.
As for what’s coming next, I’ve already started the next book and have a good idea where it’s going. But I’m not giving anything away at this stage…
What authors or works have influenced you as a writer?
When I was younger I was very impressed by American writers like Hemingway and Irwin Shaw, who both could put volumes of nuance and story in the space of a few lines. But I also owe a debt to Raymond Chandler, the creator of Philip Marlowe. He was the first crime writer I read and really opened my eyes to the possibilities a first person narrator.
And as a follow-on, do you have a favourite book, something that you return to on a regular basis?
Probably Chandler’s The Long Goodbye, which saw an older and very different Marlowe from the brash young private eye of The Big Sleep. It’s a very poignant book, with its main character world-weary and vulnerable, but still not beaten. In fact, it’s high time I re-read it again.
What does a typical (writing) day in the life of Simon Beckett look like?
They tend to vary, depending what stage a book is at. When I’m pushing to finish I’ll work eleven or twelve hours a day and have to force myself to leave my desk. But in general I try to keep to office hours, so I’ll start at around nine in the morning and finish at five or six. I have a small study at home but I do most of my writing in an office about half-an hour away. I enjoy the walk, because it allows me time to clear my head and get into the right frame of mind. There’s a computer there but no internet, so there are no distractions and nothing for me to do but work. It felt very strange at first but now I really appreciate the peace and quiet.
And what advice would you have for people hoping to pursue fiction-writing as a career?
Try to be thick-skinned about criticism and rejections, because you’ll get them. Be disciplined, get the first draft down and then edit your own work to death. And don’t give up.
What are you reading now, and is it for business or pleasure?
I have two books on the go at the moment. One is a biography of Irwin Shaw, which is a fascinating if cautionary account of a hugely talented and successful twentieth century writer. The other is The Adjacent, by Christopher Priest. I’ve only just started that (I’ve just finished Lee Child’s Never Go Back) so I can’t say too much. But Priest is a genre-defying writer – I loved The Prestige, which was adapted into a film by Christopher Nolan – so I’m looking forward to it.
If David Hunter and friends should ever make the jump from page to screen, do you have any dream casts/directors/whatever?
I don’t have any favoured directors but there are several actors I can see as Hunter. I’m not going to say who they are, though, because I’m careful not to describe Hunter in the books. I’d rather readers form their own image, and if I name an actor it might spoil that.
And finally, on a lighter note…
If you could meet any writer (dead or alive) over the beverage of your choice for a chat, who would it be, and what would you talk about (and which beverage might be best suited)?
Oh, I think that would have to be Ernest Hemingway. We’d talk writing and fishing – though not bullfighting – and drink chilled beer in a waterfront bar in Spain. He’d probably be on something stronger, but I know my limitations.
Thank you once again, Simon, for taking time out to share your thoughts.