Saturday, March 15, 2008

Getting Blood from Stone

(Editor’s note: This is the first installment of a two-part report from Ali Karim about the recent Penguin crime-fiction party. The second part can be found here.)

Many of you know how fond I am of British author Nick Stone. I loved the scary imagination he displayed in his 2006 novel, Mr. Clarinet, and I went on to interview him for the Webzine Shots. Nowadays, his is a familiar name in crime-fiction circles, as he’s won both the Crime Writers’ Association’s Ian Fleming Steel Dagger Award and the International Thriller Writers’ coveted Debut Thriller Award.

Earlier this week, I had the opportunity to sit down and chat with Stone, just prior to a party we were both attending in honor of publisher Penguin’s crime-writing stable. (More on those festivities later.) Together with my Shots colleagues Mike Stotter and Mike Ripley (the latter of whom is shown above, in the mustache, with Stone), I met up with the 41-year-old author at the Marques of Granby pub in Shaftesbury Avenue. Over a few rounds of beers and nuts, he and I discussed his 2007 second novel, King of Swords (which will be released later this year in paperback in Britain, and in hardcover in the States) his second home in Miami, and his fervid interest in American politics.

Ali Karim: I just heard that Mr. Clarinet is in the running for a Gumshoe Award. Considering all of the commendations your first novel received, did you feel at all pressured in composing the follow-up, King of Swords?

Nick Stone: That’s a real honor, being nominated for the Gumshoe, a real honor. No, I didn’t really feel any pressure at all with King of Swords. I was already well into it when Mr. Clarinet came out, and the book had really taken on a life of its own--very distinct from the previous book, despite the recurring characters.

AK: King of Swords is set in Miami, Florida. Tell us, why do you like that area of the United States?

NS: I love Miami. Absolutely love it. Miami is my lady, to paraphrase a Sinatra song. Where to begin? It’s quite unlike any city in the U.S. It’s a melting pot of cultures--Latin, Jewish, Haitian, and the Deep South. It’s loud, brash, vulgar, transient. It’s like waking up in P. Diddy’s idea of heaven. It’s always shedding its skin, too, like a snake on speed. And there’s this energy to it, too, this immediacy. But that’s just Miami Beach. Miami is really two separate cities joined together by bridges. Once you get to mainland Miami, it’s very, very different. There are the great Cuban and Haitian neighborhoods, Little Havana and Little Haiti, which I can’t recommend enough. For me, Little Haiti is a home away from home. And then there are the two black areas, Overtown and Liberty City, which are both pretty rundown and violent. But drive a few blocks up the road and you’re in Coconut Grove or Coral Gables, which are very affluent.

King of Swords is set in Miami between 1980 and 1982, when it was the cocaine and murder capital of the world. Although the whole of the U.S. was going through a crippling recession then, Miami was immune because the cocaine billions kept it afloat.

AK: King of Swords is a prequel to Mr. Clarinet. Did you worry about the back-story for private eye Max Mingus and his partner, Joe Liston, as well as his nemesis, Solomon Boukman? I ask this, because very little was explained in your debut.

NS: I’d already written some of Max’s back-story in the first draft of Clarinet, but I cut it for pacing reasons. I’d pretty much worked out where the character had been before.

AK: And the visceral elements? Did you worry about the violence, with King of Swords being just as brutal as Mr. Clarinet?

NS: I didn’t think Clarinet was that violent. The violence in King of Swords is really a reflection of the environment the book is set in. Early ’80s Miami was one of the most dangerous places on earth. The body count was so high, they ran out of morgue space and had to hire refrigerated trucks from Burger King to store the bodies. I’m not making that up.

AK: There is a 1980s Scarface feel to the proceedings in King of Swords, so can I assume that Brian DePalma’s cult film was an influence on you?

NS: I love Scarface, but it wasn’t much of an influence on King of Swords. Besides, most of Scarface wasn’t even filmed in Miami, because of local protests. This is very ironic, because now, whenever you go to Miami, all you see is Scarface merchandise on sale everywhere--beach towels, T-shirts, thongs, flip flops, bras, ashtrays.

AK: There are numerous references in your books to Bruce Springsteen. Seriously, how deep does your love of Springsteen run?

NS: When it comes to The Boss, I’m a huge fan. I have been for 20 years. I’m seeing him twice in London in May.

All of Max Mingus’ negative comments about Bruce come from my wife. It was an in-joke, you see. I finally persuaded her to see him in concert with me in December. I thought it might, you know, help thaw relations, that she might appreciate quite how brilliant he really is. Now, my wife’s an open-minded person, but she spent most of the concert looking at the middle-aged men with gray mullets in the audience, playing air guitar. She found that hilarious. When I asked her what she thought about Bruce, she said, “He writes some good songs, but why does he have to sing them?” She’s the sort of person who prefers The Pointer Sisters’ version of Fire to Bruce’s, you see.

Mind you, I love The Pointer Sisters, don’t you?

AK: Sorry, Springsteen’s Fire wins every time. But back on topic: What are the publication dates for the paperback edition of King of Swords in Britain, as well as the U.S. hardcover version?

NS: King of Swords is out in the UK in paperback on August 15th or 28th. It’s out in the U.S. in hardback (where the title’s been slightly changed, to The King of Swords) on December 1st.

AK: Did your U.S. editor suggest that you make changes for an American audience?

NS: I haven’t had them through yet, but a good friend of mine very kindly sent me a list of “English-isms” to correct. There weren’t that many.

AK: With two highly acclaimed novels under your belt, I assume you’re working on the third Max Mingus adventure.

NS: Yes, I am. I started it on Monday. It’s set in 2007. Don’t expect it before 2010, though. Yes, yes, I know--WHAT?!!! But I’m not a book-a-year guy anyway, and the Mingus books aren’t a series. I have a lot of research to do, including making several trips to Cuba and learning Spanish. The book will really be something, though, I promise.

AK: A little bird has told me there’s been some interest in filming the Mingus novels. Is that correct?

NS: The little bird’s right. King of Swords has been optioned by Brilliant Films for Martin Campbell (Casino Royale, Edge of Darkness) to direct. I’m very pleased about this.

AK: Tell us about your Web site. And I see you’ve started blogging.

NS: I don’t blog anymore. I tried it and it wasn’t for me. Some people do superb ones--Ken Bruen, David Montgomery, Barry Eisler, Elaine Flinn, James Twining. But that ain’t my forte. No one wants to know how I spend my days. (Mostly I sit in a room in front of my computer, making stuff up, drinking Cuban coffee, chewing gum, and writing to my friends and family). Actually, back when I had stupidly resumed my smoking habit (that’s strictly cigarettes, Ali), I’d thought of writing a secret smoker blog--all the lengths I’d go to to disguise the stench of the things from my wife. Then I quit and decided that I’d save all that up for a future book.

I don’t have much direct involvement in my Web site. It was designed by Gary Cane, who also maintains it. Gary has done--and does--a splendid job. (Of course I have to be very nice to Gary, because he tells me he’s been storing up all my irate ex-girlfriends’ e-mails to blackmail me in the future). My wife took most of the pictures on there. I occasionally send Gary news updates. And, of course, Ali, I have you to thank for telling me to set the damn thing up. It is very useful, because readers write in and I get to communicate with them.

AK: I understand that, like your Penguin colleague Barry Eisler, you’re very interested in the outcome of this year’s U.S. presidential elections. Who are you rooting for, and why?

NS: Barry’s blog, Heart of the Matter, is superb. My wife and I are both [Barack] Obama supporters, so we’re hoping that he gets the nomination. My wife hipped me to him after she saw his speech at the Democratic Convention in 2004 [see here and here]. She saw it live [on television] and then waltzed into the bedroom, where I was dozing off, and started chanting “O!-Bam!!-Ah!!!” She told me he was going to be the next president. I watched the speech the next morning and saw exactly what she meant. I read his books and followed his career after that. I think he’s a decent, honorable man who’ll make a very good president.

AK: So I guess you’re planning to be in the States on Election Day [November 4].

NS: Yes, we’ll be in Miami for that.

AK: Leaving the subject of politics behind, let me ask: What books have passed over your reading table recently?

NS: I’ve recently finished Child 44 and Stephen King’s Duma Key, both of which I thought were excellent. I’m also reading my way through a mountain of books about Cuba.

* * *
With the interview wrapped up, and British espionage novelist Charles Cumming joining our table, the talented Mr. Ripley organized another round of drinks. And after some good-natured banter, we all bundled into our trenchcoats and heaved for London’s Union Club to partake of the Penguin party and see what that publisher has in store for readers during the remainder of 2008.

(To be continued)

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