Saturday, May 05, 2007

“I’ve Been Waiting in Vain for Another Nightmare Ever Since”

I first spoke with Simon Kernick back in 2001, having finished reading his debut novel, The Business of Dying. Shortly afterward, he called to thank me for my enthusiastic review of his amoral police thriller, as I was the first person to critique it (and we all know how difficult it is for new writers to get their work reviewed). Although I found the cover of Kernick’s book somewhat depressing, the story within--centered around a cop turned hit man, Dennis Milne--was wonderfully dark, brutal, and damned entertaining. (Kernick later revisited Milne in A Good Day to Die.)

Since then, we’ve established a friendship, grounded in the very first interview I did with Kernick, during which we discovered our mutual admiration for American novelist Lawrence Block. In 2004, I arranged--via Block’s Webmaster, Maggie Griffin--a meeting between these two authors, when Block came to London to receive the Crime Writers’ Association’s Diamond Dagger Award. (Click here for Kernick’s tribute to the man he calls a “Diamond Geezer”--a London gangster term of endearment.) And over the last few years, I’ve reviewed Kernick’s novels, conducted a couple of interviews with him (see here and here), and even conspired with him during the last Dead-on-Deansgate conference in Manchester, England, to interview another novelist whose work we both like, Paul Johnston, for January Magazine. I’ve also watched as his life and writing have changed dramatically, with Kernick moving away from police and gangster tales to pen thrillers. The first of those thrillers was Relentless (2006), which was received with great acclaim on its hardcover release and is due out this summer as a paperback in the UK. His follow-up, Severed, is scheduled to appear in UK bookstores this summer, but is already collecting great word-of-mouth publicity.

Kernick has spent more and more time overseas, as he researches his thrillers. In fact, until recently it had been a while since I’d heard from this novelist. So, on a whim, I scheduled a get-together with him. As we shared a bottle of wine, and as the day’s light faded, I persuaded him to tell Rap Sheet readers what he’s been up to during the last year, and how he came to focus on thriller novels.

Over to you, Simon:
You get your inspiration from plenty of different sources: a conversation in a pub, an article in a magazine, an interview with a cop or a crook. … Only once have I ever got mine from a nightmare. That’s what happened with my new paperback, Relentless, and I was at a crime convention, which I suppose has a perverse irony about it.

It was Toronto [Canada], in early October 2004, at Bouchercon, the U.S. crime-writing fraternity’s annual shindig. I’d been out for a few drinks the evening before with a number of fellow authors, and after a very late night, I’d staggered back to my hotel room and fallen into a near coma. Like a lot of drunken sleeps, it was disturbed and shallow, and I remember waking up about 6 a.m. with a roaring hangover. I tossed and turned for a few minutes before slipping under again.

And then it began.

[The dream] was so vivid that I’ll never forget it until the day I die. It was a sunny Saturday afternoon. I was at home, playing with my two young kids in the garden when the phone rang from inside the house. Leaving them there, I went back inside and picked it up. It was an old friend of mine, but a guy I hadn’t heard from in years, and straight away I could tell something was wrong. He was gasping, and it sounded like he was running. “You’ve got to help me,” he was saying, desperation in his voice. “Please.” I kept asking him what was wrong, but all he did was repeat that I had to help him. Then he screamed, and I heard a violent commotion at the other end of the line. There was a pause. It seemed to last a long time. And when he finally spoke, his voice little more than a gasp, it was clear he was addressing someone else. And what he was saying filled me with dread, because it was the first two lines of my address.

There was a choking sound and then the line went dead.

For a long moment, I simply didn’t know what to do. Was it a hoax? Had I misheard him? But then the fear began to kick in as I realized that, unless I was very much mistaken--and I was damn sure I wasn’t--what I’d just heard was my friend being murdered, and that for some bizarre reason his last act on this earth was to tell his killers where I lived. I had no idea what they could possibly want from me, but there was no way I was hanging round to find out. Telling myself I was being ridiculously paranoid, I grabbed my kids, put them in the car, and took them to my mother’s house. Making an excuse to her as to why I had to leave them there, I immediately drove back home, hoping to confirm to myself that I was just being an idiot.

But as I turned the corner into my estate, I saw a car with tinted windows pull up and three men I didn’t recognize jump out and walk purposefully up my drive.

I wasn’t being paranoid. Not at all. For some reason I simply couldn’t comprehend, I was being hunted.

That was the end of the dream. I woke up in a cold sweat, absolutely petrified, and it took me a good few minutes to realize that what I’d just been witnessing wasn’t reality, and I was so relieved I almost laughed out loud.

Two hours later, refreshed and still relieved, I was at the convention having coffee with two fellow authors. I told them about my dream, and as I spoke, both their eyes lit up. Amazingly, up to this point, I’d not even thought about using it as a book, but now I suddenly realized that I had a really good idea here.

I looked both authors firmly in the eye, and told them simply that if they pinched my plot, I’d kill them. They both assured me they would. I told them I could write faster. And I did.

The result was
Relentless. And I’ve been waiting in vain for another nightmare ever since.

Luckily, with my new hardback,
Severed, released in the UK in June, it’s somebody else’s nightmare, as ex-soldier Dan Tyler wakes up in a strange room next to the headless body of his new lover with no idea how he, or indeed she, got there. Unfortunately for him, other people do, and what’s worse is they have film footage which appears to show Tyler killing her. Unless he does exactly what they say, the footage is going straight into the hands of the police.

But as Tyler complies with their demands, it becomes clear that there’s no way the people setting them up are going to let him live. In the next 12 hours, he’s got to find out who they are and how to stop them, and the clock’s ticking. …

And I’m not even going to begin to tell you how I got the inspiration for that particular story …
If you like hard-edged and captivating British thrillers, Simon Kernick is definitely a name to remember.

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