Author Interview: Paul Finch

Monday, 11 May 2015
Regular readers of the blog will know that Paul Finch is one of my favourite authors and so I am very excited to be sharing a Q&A with Paul today where he gives some very in-depth answers which I hope you enjoy reading! Paul's latest novel is Hunted which I reviewed recently on the blog as part of the blog tour for the book.

1. Does your background - as a police officer and then as a script-writer - help when it comes to writing your books?

The answer to both those questions is yes. Though Heck’s adventures are entirely fictional, and bear almost no relation to my own time as a police officer, the police world in which he dwells is as believably real as I can make it. I don’t get bogged down in procedure and protocol. Frankly, that would be boring. So much police time is spent engaging in paperwork, sitting in court and so forth. No one would want to read about that. So while I tend to skip that detail, I want to get the nuances right, the street-speak, the interaction between the ranks, the legalese etc. So while I’d never say the Heck novels were realistic in terms of the way they portray crime-fighting – they are action-thrillers after all, I’m very keen on them being authentic. And this is where my own police service comes in. I lived it so I can write it. In fact, when I was first recruited to write for The Bill at the end of the 1990s, I was one of the few writers, if not the only one, who didn’t have to participate in ride-alongs with the Met, as I was already very familiar with day-to-day police life.

As for script-writing, that always helps you as a writer simply because it requires such discipline and tightness of touch. One key thing I learned writing screenplays was to eliminate anything that wasn’t essential, whether that be in terms of drama, plot or character. Anything that doesn’t directly serve the overall aim of producing a crisp, concise, fast-moving narrative with no sag in it whatsoever (hopefully) has to come out. So, though the reader will never see it, most of my Heck novels tend to shed 40-odd thousand words between the first draft and the second draft. I want it tight as a corkscrew. By the same token, all scenes – in novel terms, all chapters – must end on a note of tension. This is not necessarily an explosion or someone hanging off a cliff, but something to raise the stakes, the idea being to sweep the reader along into the next section without him or her stopping for a break. This is definitely something I’ve imported from my script-writing, and I think it’s the main reason my novels are regularly described as “page-turners” or “unputdownable”. It’s very flattering when I read that kind of stuff, and if it’s true, very satisfying.


2. You left the police in 1988, do you have to do much research for your novels in terms of police work to keep them up-to-date?

Absolutely. The law itself changes regularly, and police in-house protocols on a near-weekly basis. Then you have the wide and constant variations between different forces. So, unless I want the Heck novels to date badly, I have to stay on top of all the changes. That isn’t always easy. Previously, I would just ring up mates who were still in the job, but now my generation of coppers is retiring, so it’s more a case of making new contacts – which I do – and staying close to all new developments as and when they occur. The good news of course is that Heck is an inveterate rule-bender. So we don’t need to get too self-conscious about the application of legal minutiae.

3. Heck doesn't just ignore the rule book, he practically sets it on fire before dumping the ashes on the desks of his bosses. This maverick cop is commonplace in crime fiction, yet Heck gets results. Did you purposely set out to write him in this way?

As long as Heck doesn’t stray beyond the boundaries of what is morally acceptable, then I’m quite happy with this arrangement. For example, the idea was never that Heck would be a British Dirty Harry. Heck is not a killer. I mean, he has killed in the line of duty, but almost always that is during moments of extreme peril where lethal force is needed to protect his own or someone else’s life. As you say, this is not a particularly new concept in crime fiction. However, we get an awful lot of ‘goodie-goodie two shoes’ policing in the UK from our Sunday evening TV shows, and this was something I was determined to kick back against. I think it owes a lot to the police TV series I found most influential in my formative years, The Sweeney, but also to my own service, which straddled the introduction of the Police and Criminal Evidence Act, in which accountability was the watchword. This was notorious at the time for putting a rein on what many old sweats considered to be tried and tested methods. Prior to that, criminal gangs in the inner city were confronted at street-level, and every trick in the book was used to bring them to heel – I’m not talking about corrupt practises here, just clever, common sense bobbying that evolved naturally and which you wouldn’t find in any manual. After PACE, a lot of that had to change and a few old timers were very frustrated by it. In Heck, we have someone who, while you wouldn’t exactly say he’d stop at nothing to bring justice to the streets, is more of that old-school inclination – he has no sympathy for criminals, and will bring them down however he can, within reason. Also, these are thrillers remember … modern day noirs, and I think (hope) they are more emotionally affecting played out in darkened streets and alleys, with our main hero cast as a stalker and hunter of felons. A strictly by-the-book guy would have a hard time convincing in that role.

4. You currently release two books a year which is quite impressive. I know you are a planner and have ideas for the next few books already sketched out. Can we assume then that we will be reading about Heck for a good while longer yet?

Well, I hope so. The sixth book in the series, THE BURNING MAN, is already written and is undergoing polishing at the moment – that will be published around November this year. After that, I’m contracted to produce two more Heck novels for Avon Books. Beyond that it’s difficult to say, but as long as people want to read them, I’d welcome the opportunity to keep writing them. Though maybe two novels a year is a tall order in the long term. I’m managing it at present, but it means long working days with weekends a thing of the past.

5. As a planner are you also a plotter? Do you know the beginning, middle and end of your books when you sit down to write them or do things change as you write?

I reckon you’ve always got to be flexible, so, though I create an intricate chapter-by-chapter template for each novel before I start writing, and very rarely stray off it, I’m always alert to the possibility that better options may suggest themselves as I’m working my way through, and if that happens, I won’t hesitate in swerving off at a tangent. That said, given the tightness of the schedule – it’s usually six months from conception to final delivery – I wouldn’t be comfortable starting a book if I didn’t have at least a reasonable idea where it was going to go. I think having a beginning and an end is more important than having a middle; I tend not to work in three-act structures in my prose, but that’s a personal thing.

6. Your books can often be quite gruesome, brilliantly so in my opinion (this time around accompanied by some appropriately frightening promotional material). Do you enjoy the fact that readers stomachs might turn reading your books? And where do you get your ideas from?

Well, I was schooled in horror writing. Though I often say I preferred scary, supernatural horror to gory horror, it was always inevitable that, given the nature of the beast, quite a bit of gore would creep in there from time to time. I deliberately try to keep that to a minimum in the Heck novels, as these are thrillers, not horrors, and to do otherwise would be self-indulgent. But I make no apologies for trying my damnedest to frighten people. The reason is that this is something I myself enjoy as a reader. I love that moment when your hair creeps, your back stiffens, and you literally tingle. I love being put on the edge of my seat, I love that frisson of terror – I often liken it to a roller coaster thrill-ride but in the complete safety of your armchair. As such, this is something I constantly seek to replicate in my own writing, and the Heck stories make a very nice vehicle for it.

7. I'm not ashamed to admit that I judge books by their covers, and yours are some of my favourites. Do you have any input on them? Or a particular favourite (cover, not book!)?

This is one area where I have no real say, as I think it’s more market-driven than anything, and that’s a field in which I’m a complete novice. I’m usually sent an early version of the cover and asked for my views, but if – as has never happened – I was to really, strongly object, I don’t know whether anyone would take note of that. As I say, it hasn't happened and thus far I like them all. My two favourites are the current one – HUNTED, as that is really powerful and hard-hitting; it looks like a poster for an epic movie. The other one was for SACRIFICE, as I thought that had a real raw terror about it.

8. You recently published the short story A Wanted Man where we met a much younger Heck, back in his days as a PC. Is this something we could see more of in the future? I certainly enjoy reading about his history. Especially with a certain Gemma Piper...

I’m so glad you asked that question, because where Heck is concerned, I think the past is just as interesting as the present. First of all, Heck and Gemma's relationship underpins all these books. I hope it’s pretty clear by now that Heck and Gemma are still strongly if understatedly affectionate to each other, but the impracticality of any such relationship given their respective ranks and positions, not to mention the ‘fire and water’ nature of their personalities, keeps them apart. However, they've spent almost their entire service together – so they've endured hell and high water in each other’s company, and when it all started, it was tough, level-headed Gemma who was the counterbalance to the terrible events that broke Heck away from his family. At the time she was more than just his lover; she was the stabilising force during his early years in the job; a combination of girlfriend, plus the mother and older sister he lost. So, the short answer is yes … the plan is to write more short stories and novellas about Heck’s early days in the job, not just as a PC in Manchester, but as a young detective in London, at which point he and Gemma were an item. I think there is lots more ground to cover on this one yet. So it’s very much a case of watch this space.

9. Your books receive great praise both on Amazon and in the blogosphere. I know a lot of authors like to avoid reading reviews but does this success help when it comes to writing a new book or add even more pressure?

A bit of both is the honest answer to that. I’m always interested to read reviews in the early days of a novel’s release, but as more and more appear it becomes a bit of a pointless exercise from my perspective. It’s probably a pointless exercise from the beginning, but it’s nice to see if the first impressions of your new book are good. One thing I would say is that if all the books in the series consistently get high ratings, then that does increase the pressure to keep on performing, but that’s probably a good thing. I don’t believe I would ever consciously sit back and say “I can relax a bit with this one”, but the extra pressure applied by a fear of letting your standards slip can only help.

Thanks to Paul Finch for answering these questions! 

About Paul Finch

Paul Finch is a former cop and journalist, now turned full-time writer. He cut his literary teeth penning episodes of the British crime drama, The Bill, and has written extensively in the field of film, audio drama and children's animation. He is also well known for his work in the thriller and horror fields.

To date, he's had 15 books and nearly 300 stories published, and is a two-times winner of the British Fantasy Award and a one-time winner of the International Horror Guild Award. Paul has also written scripts for several movies. The most recent, The Devil's Rock, was released to the cinemas last July.

Paul lives in Lancashire, with his wife Catherine and his children, Eleanor and Harry. His website can be found at www.paulfinchauthor.com.

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