Tuesday, 10 January 2017

Getting To Know... Paul Toolan

Today on Getting To Know... I have Paul Toolan, lovely author of A Killing Tree and A January Killing.

You write crime fiction, what is it that draws you to this genre?

It’s a genre I’ve enjoyed since as a schoolboy I read and re-read the Sherlock Holmes stories. Mysterious plots, enigmatic characters and atmospheric settings feature strongly in the Holmes books – they’re central features of my novels too. And there are so many routes crime novels can travel. They don’t all have to be about serial killers mutilating women [usually] in gory, voyeuristic ways. Mine aren’t.

Zig Batten is the main character in your series, is there any of your personality in him or is he based on someone in real life?

While he’s a creation from my imagination, and not based on a real person, there are some parallels between him and me. We’re both from urban Yorkshire in the north of England, and moved south to live in rural Somerset in the West Country. We’re both Eng Lit graduates, reflective, socially aware, ironically-minded. I’ve never worked for the police or the legal profession, though, and when I’m writing, I often make Zig do the opposite of what I’d do in the same situation. I’m not producing an autobiography. Characters should extend the writer, I feel. And alas, he’s 25 years younger than me!

Do you have a favourite character that you have written so far?

I like Zig Batten and Sergeant Ball – liking them helps me to write them, though I write their faults too. But I’m warming to the minor members of Batten’s police team, especially to Detective Constable Eddie Hick, whose nickname is ‘Loft’, because he’s full of crap. As the series has grown, so has Hick, and his intelligence is emerging despite his physical jerks and awkwardness – he has a body that is ‘part windmill, part wrecking-ball’.

DC Nina Magnus, a black detective in largely white rural Somerset, takes on a bigger role in book 3, An Easter Killing [which should be out by Easter 2017], and I think Eddie Hick may do much the same in book 4. A fair-sized police team is harder to deal with as a writer, but the reward is having plenty of scope.

When you are writing do you have a set routine or schedule that you like to follow?

I really should have’ is a constant thought, but I’ve always been a peaks and troughs person, needing moderate deadline pressure to get things done to my satisfaction. I tend to write later in the day, as a bit of a nightbird, but sometimes I wake early with a thought or two and can be tapping the keys at 6 in the morning. I try to write every day but my pattern in every book is to have a fallow period. For the first book, this was three months - far less now.

I bought one of those desk extensions a while ago, and I now type standing up. I’m writing this standing up at my desk in the study, with research notes and reference books and music around me - and a comfy chair for a sit-down now and then. I’m told that standing is better for the back and that we work around 300 of our muscles just to stay upright. Writers don’t have to be couch potatoes unless they wish to be.

Before writing crime fiction, you wrote lyrics for musicals. What inspired you to make the jump?

I worked in Performing Arts education before moving into management and then universities, and so wrote short plays and compilations for students for years. Basic music skills an ear for dialogue led me to lyric writing. Good lyrics aren’t quick or easy to do, but you can write one song, and then another. Only when I retired did I have the space and time to take on the complex plots and multiple characters demanded of longer forms, such as crime fiction. Even with good notes and research, you have to hold an awful lot of stuff in your head!

When you're not writing what would we find you doing?

I regularly walk in the Somerset countryside – which is where the first book came from. In A Killing Tree, a hiking group finds a body at the top of a local hill called Burrow Hill, a real place. When I was admiring the view one day I wondered what would happen if...

I have a fair-sized garden which I can neglect when the muse is upon me. Same is true with fishing [Zig Batten also fishes and struggles with his garden]. What Batten dislikes is cricket and foreign travel, both of which I love. So far, every book includes a foreign visit. These days, my holiday travel has become part relaxation, part research.

Do you have a favourite thing about being an author?

I don’t write to pay the rent, and I’m glad, because writing for a living is tough. I write for enjoyment and like the freedom of writing when I want to – or not. And there’s tremendous satisfaction when you bring a complex plot together and it works. I guess it’s like completing one of those giant jigsaws with thousands of tiny pieces that look almost - but not quite - the same.

Do you have a favourite author?

Too many to reduce to one, I fear. An early influence was Mark Twain – I sometimes think Batten has a touch of Huckleberry Finn’s habit of ‘bemused observation’. I suppose I was brought up on the classics to some degree. We did Shakespeare, Wordsworth, Dickens, Jane Austen etc at school, and I enjoyed Joseph Conrad, Hemingway, James Joyce and the like at university.

I’ve tried many crime/mystery writers, especially enjoying Ian Rankin, Michael Connolly, John Le Carre, Henning Mankell. Latterly, I’ve gone off the more gruesome stuff [Jo Nesbo became a bit too gory for my taste].

I seem to have less time to read now in any case. Writing - and promoting one’s writing - soaks up time.

If you could give younger you any advice about your writing journey what would it be?

Without question, I’d tell myself to be patient and only publish the first book when it was as good as I could make it. Indeed, it might make sense to write the first two books before publishing either. I say this because as a new author, the first book is often a learning project. After writing A January Killing I looked back at A Killing Tree and didn’t think it as good as it could have been - so I revised and improved it and issued a new edition. A good thing, I hope, for readers, but it slowed down my writing of book 3.

What can we look forward to next from you?

I think An Easter Killing will be an engaging read – a little more contentious than the first two, and with more character development in the police team.

I may agree to narrate the whole series for Audible Books, though this is a tall order, time-wise. I’m writing a few short stories too, which have gone down well at public readings.

Occasionally, an insensitive reader asks me when I’m going to write a ‘proper’ novel! For now, crime fiction provides all the scope I seek. But watch this space - who knows?

Thank you so much to Paul for answering my questions and joining me on my blog today.

To Connect With Paul Toolan

Twitter - @ptoolan1https://twitter.com/ptoolan1

A January Killing

January, white-frost, a pitch-black orchard. 

Despite the cold, Detective Inspector Zig Batten is enjoying his first West Country ‘Wassail’ - an ancient apple-orchard ceremony. His partner’s young daughter is this year’s Wassail Queen. A torchlight procession ends in the ritual firing of shotguns, to scare ‘evil spirits’ from the trees and trigger this year’s apple blossom.

But not every shotgun fires blanks, and next day a dead body has blossomed in the orchard. 

What is the killer’s motive? Why this victim? And who is sending anonymous letters to the villagers of Stockton Marsh, where Batten’s own Sergeant lives? 

Winter closes in, but murder does not stop with the dead - it tunnels into the living too, as Batten and Ball discover. Will their own endangered lives and relationships ever be quite the same?

As snow descends, the police make ready. Until another body is found...

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