15 May 2015

The Intel: David Hewson

David Hewson Photo credit: markbothwell.com

Earlier this week we reviewed acclaimed author David Hewson’s latest foray into Eurocrime, his second Vos and Bakker thriller, The Wrong Girl. You can see that review right here if you so choose, or you can just scroll down and save your most important finger a lot of unnecessary work.

Hewson is a restless soul, the author of the Nic Costa series, set in Rome, and the adaptations of Scandi crimes The Killing I, II and III. His latest series is set in Amsterdam. So, yes—you know where we’re going with this—we’re delighted that Hewson has agreed to give us the intel on his work. He talks Dutch cops, adapting The Killing, and how he sets about getting under the skin of a new city…

Who is The Wrong Girl?

The Wrong Girl (and I know there are a lot of books with ‘girl’ in the title at the moment but in this case it is a girl) is Natalya Bublik, the eight-year-old daughter of a Georgian single mother working as a freelancer prostitute in the Red Light cabins of Amsterdam. She’s been snatched at a huge public event in October, the arrival of Sinterklaas – St Nicholas, a bit like our Santa Claus – which is a public holiday that ends with Sinterklaas addressing the city’s children from the balcony of the theatre in Leidseplein. It appears the kidnappers – a terrorist group trying to force the release of one of their supporters – have seized Natalya in mistake for the daughter of a wealthy Amsterdam family. But it soon becomes apparent all is not as it seems.

Tell us about Vos and Bakker…

I wanted to write a book which has a man and woman in it without any hint or possibility of romantic attachment. There is no ‘will they? Won’t they?’ in any of this. They’re both likeable slightly dysfunctional characters in their own right. Vos a loner with a failed relationship in the past, happy to live in his houseboat and his dog, wary of getting close to anyone. Bakker, fifteen years younger or so, comes from Friesland in the north of the Netherlands so she’s treated like an outsider – a bucolic idiot – by some, even though she’s very smart. Vos is a city chap, sophisticated, liberal, easy-going. Bakker is judgmental and uneasy in the city at times. They both think the other needs fixing so it’s a relationship that at times can be a bit edgy, though there’s genuine affection and respect in there too.

How do Dutch cops differ from our own?

They don’t. All the things British police moan about – management, bureaucracy, targets, political correctness – happen in the Netherlands too. Probably everywhere.

The Wrong GirlYou’re known for your European thrillers – how well do you have to know a city and a culture before you can write about it?

Personally I have to know it pretty well – and that means taking an apartment, reading a lot about it, talking to people, taking photos. With the Vos books I had my Dutch publisher on board from the outset which was incredibly helpful and saved me from lots of stupid mistakes. However much you work at it you’re bound to let something through that you couldn’t possible spot. My Dutch publisher saved me that embarrassment thank goodness.

Your research must be extensive — how do you organise it all?

Logically. A camera, a smart phone, lots and lots of notes, 90% of which probably won’t be used. Research is the bit of the iceberg you don’t see though so I never know whether something really was wasted. I do have a little bell that rings when the research is taking over though. It’s important to remember the story comes first, and you don’t have to put in an interesting fact simply because it’s interesting.

You recently completed your novelisations of The Killing series – how does it feel to be once again working on your own characters?

It doesn’t feel terribly different to be honest. The Killing adaptations were just that: adaptations. I made lots of changes, killed some characters who lived on TV and vice versa, and for the last book I revived a character, Troels Hartmann, who didn’t even appear on TV. I wanted the books to work as a trilogy about the character of Sarah Lund and I was writing with hindsight. The TV people didn’t have that advantage.

All of the challenges I have with my own books were there. Even down to the dialogue which doesn’t follow the TV much at all.

What’s the hardest lesson you ever had to learn about writing?

I don’t know if it’s the hardest lesson but it’s the best lesson – you never learn this craft. You’re always a beginner in some ways, because if you’re not you’ll start turning out books that are just like the last one. I wipe the slate clean with every book and start with a blank page determined to do something that’s not like the last book. The Wrong Girl is quite different to The House of Dolls in many respects. That first book was introducing Vos and Bakker and in a way was about Bakker rescuing Vos from his solitary life. In The Wrong Girl they’ve got a real and nasty case on their hands, and it’s only personal because they’re the kind of people who care about the dispossessed and the downtrodden – unlike some others in authority.

Who are the authors you admire, and why?

I only ever mention dead authors in this respect because if you mention living ones the living ones you don’t mention can get punchy. Robert Graves for writing one of the best examples of pure tragedy around – I, Claudius. Crime/thriller is simply a new name for what the Greeks call tragedy so there’s lots to learn from there.

Ed McBain for introducing the idea that books can work with an ensemble cast, not just a single all-knowing, all powerful protagonist.

Robert Louis Stevenson because he managed to get away with some fantastic genre-crossing, from horror to kid’s stuff to out-and-out adventure. Something it would be very hard to repeat today.

Give me some advice about writing…

It’s easy really. All you have to do is find the right words and put them in the correct order.

What’s next for you?

A new Italian standalone set in 1986 Florence, The Flood, from Severn House in July. Then a nine or ten hour audio adaptation of Macbeth for Audible in Germany (it’s not yet recorded so I’m not sure of the finished length). It’s not an adaptation of Shakespeare but an adaptation of an adaptation of Shakespeare I wrote into book form with A.J Hartley, a Shakespeare professor, which was recorded by Alan Cumming a few years back.

This adapting thing seems to be catching.

The Wrong Girl by David Hewson is published 7th May by Macmillan, priced £12.99 in hardback.