Jay Stringer interview
Jay Stringer is a Black Country native and Wolverhampton Wanderers fan currently living in Glasgow and an exciting new voice in British crime fiction. Jay’s debut novel, Old Gold, is a cracking piece of pulp crime fiction with a social conscience. In it, Eoin Miller is a half-gypsy gangland detective and former copper doing his best to bury himself, and his demons, in the seediest world he can inhabit. When a one night stand he takes home turns up dead the next morning Eoin finds himself drawn into a dangerous world of drug-related gang warfare as well as political and police corruption. Old Gold rattles along at breakneck speed in a tough, hardboiled style that deserves to bring Stringer a significant amount of attention for his next work. As well as his debut novel, Jay has released an eBook of short stories, Faithless Street, that act as a prologue to Old Gold and has had other work published in the famous Mammoth Book of Best British Crime series. At its best Jay’s writing has the streetwise toughness, social awareness and pop culture savvy of George Pelecanos and Richard Price. Old Gold and its follow-ups could do for the Midlands what David Peace’s Red Riding Quartet did for Yorkshire. I was lucky enough to talk to Jay about writing, social pulp fiction and the rollercoaster world of supporting a proper football team.
What made you want to become a writer?
It was my fall-back choice. I wanted to be Indiana Jones, but I injured my back. Writing is easier, and involves less spiders.
Which other writers are you influenced by?
My biggest influences aren’t prose writers. I look to writers like Alan Moore, Sean O’Casey, Bruce Springsteen and Paul Westerberg. For prose I like George Orwell’s essays, and for crime fiction I owe a lot to Lawrence Block’s Matt Scudder books.
All of my favorite crime novels have the ability to really capture a sense of place and the community in which they are set. How important to you is the setting of Old Gold? Why the Black Country and Wolverhampton?
It’s vital. I think what crime fiction does at its best is to be social fiction. In the modern era, with everything broken down into labels and genres, ‘social fiction’ has really been driven off the mainstream fiction shelves (though ‘literary fiction’ is a genre, people just don’t admit it) and you’ll find it in the crime section more often than not. Some of the best crime writers are really just social fiction writers by another name. Dickens, Steinbeck, Faulkner, they would be published as crime writers if they were working today.
I don’t intend for all of my books to be set in the Midlands, but the majority of them probably will be. There’s so much to say about the area and it’s history and culture. It’s the part of the world that gave us Shakespeare and industry, a region that has touched the whole western world, but it’s now been ignored for generations. I couldn’t have set Old Gold anywhere else.
You currently live in Glasgow, so why not set the stories there?
I didn’t want to write anything set in Glasgow until I knew the places and the voices. I really want to be able to capture something that feels true. I’ve got a few ideas now, so a Glasgow story might be on the way.
I think that great crime fiction often acts as an exploration of masculinity. Do you agree with this? Do you think that theory can be applied to Old Gold and your other writing?
There are certainly a lot of crime crime writers who explore it. George Pelecanos, for example, writes fantastic books that deal largely with that theme. Christa Faust, in her two Angel Dare books, has given us some good observations on masculinity from the point of view of a female protagonist. It’s fun to write about masculinity from a very self-aware point of view, to see how characters trap themselves within their own expectations. But following on from the idea of crime being social fiction, we can find many themes that run through the genre, from masculinity to racism, sexism, and so on. A more balanced examination of gender politics is something that we’re striving for at the moment, one step at a time. For my work, well, I’m a man, so there will always be a certain amount of masculinity and male issues that creep in even when I’m not trying to, but there is also a conscious exploration of the way men define themselves. I think a running theme in my work could arguably be the great many creative and violent ways that men find to mess up the world, but I also like to look at racism, poverty and gender issues.
You have described your work as “social pulp fiction”. What does this mean to you?
It’s my way of explaining the balance I try to maintain. It is a book that strives for the kind of social realism and fiction that I’ve been talking about, but I’m also setting out to entertain and to throw surprises and cliffhangers at the reader. I’m not writing escapism or popcorn fiction, but I’m not writing preachy political fiction either.
The hard-boiled style is a distinctly American approach to crime fiction and not something that we usually associate with English crime writing. Why do you think that is? What draws you to that style?
The second part is easier to answer than the first. I like brevity. I like writers who know not to put too many words on the page, just as I like lyricists who can tell a whole story in two lines. I think it’s actually harder to write a good short book than a good long book. As for why? I really don’t know. I think sometimes we in Britain can be a bit too apologetic over things like this. A lot of writers will back off from writing about things that they think are “too American.” There’s a hesitance, for instance, to write about gangs and guns. But I think anyone who’s grown up near cities like Birmingham, Leicester or Manchester will know that these are very real – and very British – issues. On the flip side, I think American films and music have permeated our culture so much that it’s easy to write in too much of an “American voice,” and the trick to show that the subject matter and style of hardboiled crime fiction are expressed just as well in a modern British voice as an American one.
Music seems to play an important part in your stories and is particularly used to aid our understanding of Eoin. Your Old Gold prequel, Faithless Street, is presumably named after the Whiskeytown album. A lot of the music you reference is singularly American and of a particular genre and attitude. What is it about this music that speaks to you and your characters?
Yup, it’s a Whiskeytown reference. One of the places where Miller’s and my own tastes overlap. I wanted to give him outsider music, something that showed he didn’t really fit in, and it seemed the best way to do that was to tap into the American music tradition rather than British. He still loves a lot of local bands, like Ned’s Atomic Dustbin and The Wonder Stuff, but he has a real affinity for writers like Paul Westerberg and Tom Waits. He identifies with songs about drinkers, outsiders and hard-luck losers, there’s clearly an extent to which he’s holding them up as a mirror, but it’s up to the reader to decide how much they trust him on that. Do the other characters view Miller the same way that he views himself? I’ll leave that open for others.
Is there a particular reason for making your main character of Romani descent?
It’s an issue that’s very close to me. It’s also one of the last “acceptable” forms of segregation and racism. The Roma are still routinely evicted from towns, communities and even countries. It’s ethnic cleansing, and it’s done out in the open, but nobody talks about it. The Roma were in the Holocaust – to the extent that they have their own name for it – and were also shipped over to America in the days of slavery to work on plantations. As a writer it was a chance to crawl into an issue that doesn’t get written about, and to find a new take on a crime fiction protagonist, a natural-born outsider. I touch lightly on the issues in Old Gold, but I mine them much deeper in the two following books.
Do you think there is resurgence in British crime fiction at the moment?
Yes and no. What we’re really talking about (as with films and music) when we discuss ‘resurgences’ is marketing. The writers are always there, but the publishing deals come and go. There are some brilliant British writers working in crime fiction at the moment. Ray Banks is my favorite current British writer. Russel D Mclean is doing interesting things with PI fiction. Cathi Unsworth rightly gets a lot of praise. What we saw in the wake of Ian Rankin’s career taking off was that publishers put a lot of effort into creating a crime fiction brand, and an impression of a boom. Some writers benefitted from it, some didn’t. But what we’re seeing with the rise of eBooks, self-publishing and indie eBook publishers like Blasted Heath is that there’s a new generation of crime writers who have to worry less about marketing trends and rules. Writers like Nigel Bird, Nick Quantrill and Gerard Brennan are only a click away from new readers.
The title Old Gold comes from the club colours of Wolverhampton Wanderers Football Club. The team clearly has a big place in the heart of Eoin Miller and I assume yourself. Do you think supporting a team like Wolves has influenced your outlook on life? As a West Ham fan I think I can safely say that the rollercoaster ride of supporting that kind of team certainly has an influence on my own viewpoints. “Just like my dreams, they fade and die,” and all that!
It’s had a huge impact on me. I’m sure any football fan that is also a writer would be able to make a case for why their team is so important. But in terms of English football, I think there are certain clubs, from working class industrial backgrounds, that still say a lot about the town or region they are in. Some clubs are huge institutions that are identified with particular religious or political movements, or are multi-national brands that speak for millions of people. But I think there are clubs like Wolves, West Ham, Hull, the Sheffield clubs and the dreaded enemy [West Bromwich] Albion, who are routed in very industrial working class communities and towns. I still think supporting clubs like these is a different experience to supporting many of the other clubs. I’m not saying it’s a better experience, just a different one. Wolves as a club is inextricably linked to Wolverhampton. The club is probably ‘bigger’ than the city, but the city also stepped in to save Wolves from liquidation twice in the 1980’s. They need each other.
The title ‘Old Gold’ was just too perfect to ignore. I kept trying to find something else. I was very resistant to the idea of being known as the Wolves fan who both wrote about a Wolves fan and titled the book after the club colours. Each time I moved away from the title, it pulled me back. It sounds like a bittersweet colour. ‘Gold’ speaks of glory and fame, or heroic deeds, but the ‘old’ suggests rust, and weariness, and faded glory. I think the colour is perfect for the football club, for the town, and for Eoin Miller.
Some of my favorite crime writers often write series of novels exploring the same set of characters, locations and ideas. You have written a novel and some short stories doing this and I get the feeling you are not done with these characters. What next?
Old Gold is the first in a trilogy of books, and there is a three-act plan for Eoin Miller. All the pieces matter. I’ll probably write a few other Miller shorts as the second and third book come out, to fill in back-story. I don’t want him to outstay his welcome though, so once his story is finished I’ll move on. There are a lot of other stories going on in the background of this trilogy, things that we can’t see in Miller’s first-person narration, so It might be fun to explore some of those, and to get into the heads of characters that we’ve only seen from Miller’s point of view so far.
Do you have any plans beyond Eoin Miller and his stomping ground?
I don’t think I’ll ever be too far from the Black Country and Birmingham, and hopefully I’ll keep getting the chance to return to the well and add other characters and stories to an expanding world there, almost like Marvel comics where everything takes place in the same world. I really want to write some stuff set in the 70’s and 80’s, around the time of the bombs and the riots, but I’m not ready for that yet. I don’t want to be a one trick pony, so I have plans for an action adventure novel set in the 40’s, maybe some westerns and horror. I have a life-long fascination with New York, and I’d love to write something set there, but I need to know those streets a lot better first.
Tell me a little bit about the publishing of Old Gold & Faithless Street.
I went the old fashioned route. Write a book, get an agent, wait while agent gets you an awesome deal with a publisher, then let the publisher sell the book. Thomas & Mercer have been very supportive, and are very focused on keeping their authors happy and engaged, which sadly isn’t always the case in publishing. They’re owned by Amazon, too, so they’re experts at selling books. Faithless Street was self-published, I put that out through the kindle publishing platform, had to sort out the cover and the formatting and all that. Self-publishing has a certain appeal, and I won’t be averse to putting a few things out myself again in future, but its great having a publisher to do do all the hard work for you.