John Niven worked in the music industry as an A & R man. When he gave into his destiny and became a fulltime writer, his A&R career became the subject of his first novel KILL YOUR FRIENDS. He has published two more novels, THE AMATEURS and THE SECOND COMING. He is currently working on a film script in Los Angeles where our Shots’ interviewer flew out to meet him (not) to discuss his first thriller, COLD HANDS.
LJH: John Niven, thanks for talking to Shots. Does the “J” in John J Niven act like the “M” in Iain M Banks? He uses it to distinguish between his straight novels and his science fiction. Does the “J” identify your new thriller authorship?
JJN: Pretty much. I was a bit…unsure about using it to be honest. But people do like to pigeonhole you and since the last three novels had all been what you’d broadly describe as black comedy it was suggested that – with this being a straight thriller – I should do something to differentiate. I’m not entirely comfortable with it yet. It feels perilously close to things like ‘protecting the brand.’ Which is obviously a satanic concept.
Graham Greene used to do something similar, by putting the words “An entertainment” on the title page of his thrillers. Which authors have you been reading? Who has influenced you? Your publisher compares you to Karin Slaughter and S J Watson, but your big difference is that you have written a “man in peril” story. You have all of Karin Slaughter’s gruesome violence, though.
I don’t read an awful lot of contemporary thrillers I’m afraid. Though I did think Before I Go To Sleep was a wonderful novel. In terms of crime writing my touchstones are pretty much what they’re always been – the 1940s novels of Hammet, Chandler and James M. Cain. Especially Cain. I’m a huge fan of Elmore Leonard, though you wouldn’t strictly call him a thriller writer. I think he’s pretty sub genere. I like Don Winslow too. There was a cinematic precedent for Cold Hands though in the shape of the film Death and The Maiden. It stars Sigourney Weaver and Ben Kingsley. She plays a woman who finds herself confronting a man who tortured her many years before. All set in one isolated location. I often have cinematic inspirations for books - Altman’s The Player and Swimming With Sharks were big influences on Kill Your Friends.
It was only on a re-read that I noticed that you’d planted clues as to how nemesis was able get so close to Donnie Miller, your protagonist, (those clues are half-way down page 30). Did youhave to change your thinking and planning to write a thriller? Does it require a different mind-set? Were you specifically plotting?
I always plot. The Amateurs is probably the most densely plotting novel I’ve written. There were three, arguably four, storylines that had to come together in the final act. As for having a different mindset, not really. As with cinema tone is about the most important thing for a novel. Do I buy the tone? The world it is establishing. As soon as I knew what this story was I knew that tonally the book would be very different from anything I’d written before.
COLD HANDS has echoes of two notorious child murders – one in England and one in Scotland. Have you always been aware of them? Have you thought about using them in fiction before?
The specific impulse that brought the book to life was when – quite by chance – I came across an interview with Denise Bulger, the mother of the toddler murdered in Wales by child killers John Venables and Robert Thompson. She said that after Venables had been released from prison as an adult she had a tip off as to his whereabouts. She tracked him down and actually saw him in the street but became ‘paralysed with fear and hatred.’ It occurred to me – what if there was a parent put in that position who had a different response? Who had in fact spent their whole life preparing for that moment of revenge?
The difference between Donnie Miller, and the real life cases, is that you give him a different and transforming experience in his Young Offender Institution. That again has an echo of what actually happened in the 1970s in Barlinnie Prison Special Unit, when it produced artists such as Jimmy Boyle. Did you do any research or did you remember it from the time? Do you think that prison could produce Donnie Millers rather than the recidivists we see today?
I think the capacity for reform lies hugely withinthe individual and that they need to be presented with the opportunity of realising it. An awful lot of people who commit dreadful crimes have been denied an educational, nurturing experience as children. It’s still possible to put that in front of them later in life. Donnie in the novel was given no opportunity as a child to become the person he could have become.
The book plays with reality. As Donnie recalls his original offence we realise that he may be rewriting what happened to reduce his liability, avoiding the full blame. Then when his nemesis arrives he discovers that other events he has followed in the newspapers, such as the death of his social worker, were nothing like what he thought them to be. How interested were you in playing with reality? How many levels of reality do you think there are in the novel?
Donnie’s interpretation of past events are an exaggerated version of something we all do – exaggerated in proportion to the offence he is trying to live with. We all recast our past in slightly different, more flattering lights to make past deeds bearable. Memory lies. Donnie has lied to himself for so long and so forcefully about what happened with the murder that he has almost come to believe it.
You close the novel with a reference to J G Ballard, who once described a change in his life as like Stalingrad. I didn’t recognise the quotation so asked the J G Ballard mailing list. It turns out, rather oddly, two different people (the interviewer Lynn Barber and Martin Amis) claim he said it to them. It’s another example of reality becoming confused. Do you have any other examples?
I think that’s just two fine writers vying for credit rather than a distortion of reality! I was aware of the quote through the Amis interview actually.
I’ve never come across a novel set on the Canadian plains before. You’re a Scot with a home in England. Have you come to know the area well? Did you research by visiting or reading? The one thing it gives you is the benefit of isolating your characters, especially when the snows come.
It was kind of subliminal, how the book came to be set there. A girl I used to know at university – many years back – had eventually settled in Saskatchewan, in Moosejaw, and I met her in Ireland for the first time in 20 years while I was outlining the novel. I think her talking about what kind of place it was must have struck a chord. I knew Donnie and his family were going to live somewhere very remote and gradually it made sense to make it Saskatchewan. I had originally envisaged opening the book with the police helicopter landing in the snow in the night, but structurally it wouldn’t work. It got us too far into the story too quickly. So it eventually became the midpoint of the novel.
You’re the second person that I know has moved from an A&R career to writing. The other is Louise Bagshawe, now Mensch, though she seems to have given it up for politics. What do you think of the way that her reality has been invaded recently? All of her books have been described as “chick lit”, do you think she should change direction?
I certainly think she should change her political direction. Again. I haven’t read any of her books. I don’t imagine it would be an edifying experience.
What are your plans for the future? Do Heinemann, your publishers, have your outlines, or even the next completed manuscript? Or does your visit to LA indicate that you intend to move from novels to film scripts (you wouldn’t be the first)?
I’ve always written film scripts. I wrote two before I ever wrote a novel. But I could never just write screenplays. It’s art by committee – which can be fun once in a while but is also incredibly frustrating. With the novel you’re in charge. You get to play God. To answer the question – I’m just starting the next novel, which is about a morally and creatively bankrupt novelist and screenwriter funnily enough. Make of that what you will. I know what the next two novels are going to be and, yes, Heinemann have outlines. Outlines that will probably bear very little relation to the finished books…
And what about styles? If you write more thrillers will they be one-offs, will you start a series? Will they be reality based again?
I hope to write more. I have one other thriller idea that I can’t quite get to tie together. It’ll happen eventually. When you’re driving or in the shower or deep into the Macallan at midnight and you suddenly snap your fingers and go ‘AH!’ Those are the best moments. You only get a couple a year. If you’re lucky.
John J Niven, thank you.
COLD HANDS is published by William Heinemann in 2nd August 2012 - in the meanwhile SHOTS suggests you purchase the following:
READ SHOTS' REVIEW HERE
Photo credit: © Jas Lehal