02 June 2015

The Intel: Saul Black/Glen Duncan

Glen Duncan & Saul Black©HACQUARD et LOISON/Opale/Leemage

In these times of austerity we know you’re always looking for more bangs for your buck. Which is why Crime Thriller Fella is bringing you two intel interviews for the price of one, sort of thing.

The other day we reviewed Saul Black’s The Killing Lessons, and you can see that by clicking here, or scrolling down. It’s a rollercoaster of a novel about the hunt for a pair of serial murderers, alpha killer Xander and his beta buddy, Paulie, and it’s intense, brutal and urgent.

Saul Black is, of course, the nom de plume of critically-acclaimed author Glen Duncan. It’s his first foray into the crime genre. We’re delighted to say that Glen and Saul are here to give us the intel about alter egos, how writing is like probing a wobbly tooth, and why his protag is such a mess…

Tell us about Saul Black

As ‘Glen Duncan’ my writing style has been ironic, digressive, oblique, parenthetical - and my previous books (werewolves excepted) have not been particularly ‘plot-driven’. I knew that if I was going to attempt a thriller I was going to have to develop a more economical style and concentrate a lot more on pushing the story forward in a dramatic, suspenseful way. So I decided to give myself a new identity, to pretend to myself that I was a different kind of writer and see if that helped. Psychologically, it did. Of course the boundary between two writerly selves is permeable: Granted ‘Saul Black’ has no patience with essayistic asides, jokes and literary allusions, but for all that ‘Glen Duncan’ doesn’t quite manage keep his trap shut. The chase is still cut to, but not, I hope, at the expense of psychological depth, decent sentences and fresh metaphors.

It turns out I rather like having an alter-ego. It’s a bit like being in disguise, which has always appealed. What worries me, now that Saul Black is up and running with serial killers, is the potential discovery that he has even worse habits than Glen Duncan…

What was the inspiration for The Killing Lessons?

I’m very rarely ‘inspired’, since that suggests either a specific trigger or a mysterious epiphanic moment. It’s much more a process of gradually (and indeed grudgingly) working around a few ideas, the mental equivalent of being unable to stop prodding a wobbly tooth with one’s tongue. WithThe Killing Lessons it was just a case of deciding to write a thriller (see answer to next question) and then sort of mooching about in my imagination for something that would at least get the story off the ground. I had no confidence that it would turn out to be anything more than a false start when I wrote the first five thousand words - but I sent it to my agent and he was very encouraging, so I persisted with it.

What made you want to write a crime novel?

The practical part of the answer is that crime is one of the few markets in fiction that’s actually thriving. The nobler part is that it occurred to me (with a laughable belatedness) that although I’d always been writing about ‘good’ and ‘evil’ - along with extremes of deviant behaviour and the ordinary human sacraments of friendship and humour and love set against it - I’d never written a straight murder story. So I thought I’d have a go. These days, I’m so old and knackered that nothing gets written unless I set it as a piece of self-imposed homework. I really didn’t know (and in a way still don’t) the first thing about the ‘crime thriller’ genre. It was an experiment. Time will tell if readers think it was a success.

The Killing LessonsHow is your serial killer Xander different from other literary wrong ‘uns?

There are two approaches to writing psychopathic serial killers. One is to invite the reader in to psychological speculation, to suggest toxic seeds or traumatic antecedents such that, given enough shrinks and enough time, we might begin to understand what’s going on in the homicidal head. The other is to present the subject as a closed book, a finished product, a psychology that renders any prospective analysis pointless. (Imagine a globe of impenetrable metal, with the strange consciousness trapped forever beyond view or reach within it.) In Red Dragon and The Silence of the Lambs, this is the way Harris presents Hannibal Lecter. (I understand that later writing delves into the doctor’s past, but for most readers, I suspect, the definitive version is the one found in the first two novels.) My guy, Xander (and his sidekick, Paulie) fall into the former category, which yields, I hope, a believable past feeding into a believable present. There’s nothing wrong with erudite, charming serial killers (I wrote one, in a way, for The Last Werewolf) but I was after something a bit grittier this time around. I haven’t answered your question. I don’t know that there’s that much new or ‘different’ to say about serial killers - but there are new and different ways of saying it, which is always a writing goal, no matter the subject.

Your detective Valerie Hart is a mess what attracts us to such damaged protagonists?

Perfect people are boring. All but inveterate narcissists feel flawed and not-up-to-the-job most of the time, so why should cops be any different? It’s more sympathetic to be dealing not only with someone who has a hellishly tough job to do, but who must do it in a state of emotional frailty or psychological disrepair.

The violence in The Killing Lessons is brutal and twisted why are we so fascinated by dark and horrific stories?

Because we’re all too often a dark and horrific species. We’re fascinated by our potential, and we crave the false comfort of stories in which virtue is rewarded and vice punished. It’s not quite so straightforward in The Killing Lessons, which I’m sure some readers won’t like. Similarly, some readers will throw up their hands at the starkness of the violence. To which I’m afraid I have no reply. I don’t think I have what it takes to write a delicate or decaf serial killer novel, and I would consider it an act of imaginative bankruptcy if I did.

Who are the authors you admire, and why?

How far back do you want me to go? Milton. Robert Browning. Thomas Hardy. W. H. Auden. D. H. Lawrence, Graham Greene. Of more modern (or slightly less dead) writers, Anthony Burgess, Paul Bowles, Mervyn Peake, John Updike, J G Ballard. Among the actually living, Martin Amis, Susanna Moore, Mary Gaitskill. I’m drawn to writers who are first and foremost stylists, whose work relies as much (if not more) on the quality of the prose as it does on plot.

Give me some advice about writing

Make every sentence the definitive version of itself. Never use figurative language you’ve heard or read before. Treat most adjectives like lice. Don’t write completely drunk. Don’t kid yourself that quality equates with success.

What’s next for Saul?

I’m just about to deliver a second thriller, featuring the same detective, Valerie Hart, from The Killing Lessons. If anything, this novel is darker than its predecessor. What I’ll do after that I’m not sure. With any luck, go on a vacation and catch up on some reading.