Paul Finch is a former cop and journalist, now turned full-time writer. He cut his literary teeth penning episodes of the British crime drama, The Bill, and has written extensively in the field of film, audio drama and children’s animation. He is also well known for his work in the thriller and horror fields. Paul lives in Lancashire, with his wife Catherine and his children, Eleanor and Harry.
- To readers of the blog who may not be familiar with you or your writing, can you tell us a bit about yourself and how you got into this?
Absolutely. My father was a writer, so it was something I always wanted to do. However, when I left my education, I initially went into the police force in Manchester, did some time there, and then moved into journalism. By this time, I was in my late 20s and really getting the bug to put pen to paper. I was watching what at the time was a relatively new British police show, ‘The Bill’, and commented that, though I liked it, I didn’t think they’d got everything accurate. My father then challenged me to try and write for it, myself. As such, I bombarded ‘The Bill ‘with unsolicited speculative scripts, which were all studiously ignored until I actually wrote a television screenplay that was nothing to do with The Bill or its characters, but which was nevertheless a police story, and focussed on a murder inside a police station. When I sent this down, ‘The Bill’ asked me to go in and see them. They were sufficiently impressed, they said, to give me a few shots at the show.
What I didn’t realise at the time was that I wasn’t a particularly adept writer, but that I did have something they valued, which was authentic police knowledge and experience. Anyway, it got me inside the door, and I was subsequently coached by what was then the best script department in British television. A number of my episodes went to air, so when I was made redundant by my Manchester newspaper in 1998, I already had a parallel career. By then, I’d also branched out into writing children’s animation and horror fiction – novels, novellas and short stories, and I subsequently won a number of awards, which began to draw wider attention to me. This led me into writing novels and full-cast audio dramas for ‘Dr Who’, but the real break I’d been waiting for came in 2012, when my agent persuaded me to return to my roots, crime fiction, and write a dark, hard-hitting police novel.
The outcome of this was ‘Stalkers’, which was published by Avon (HarperCollins imprint) the next year, and introduced a new lead character – DS Mark ‘Heck’ Heckenburg. It seemed to achieve best-seller status with almost indecent speed, and I suppose the rest is now history. There have been six Heck novels to date, with the latest, ‘Ashes to Ashes’, published this April. The success of these books has also enabled me to launch a parallel series of cop novels, the Lucy Clayburn mysteries, in which the central character is female and where we adopt a slightly more down-to-Earth tone. The first of those, ‘Strangers’, was published in 2016 and made it onto the ‘Sunday Times’ top 10 list, which was very gratifying. The next one, ‘Shadows’, is due out next autumn. And that’s where we are up to at this point.
- Where do you get your ideas for your stories?
Well, this a commonly asked question, but it’s always a difficult one to answer. I have three physical files of ideas, and each one is literally as thick as a telephone directory, if not more so. The ideas themselves come from all around me – places I visit, snippets of stories, both true and fictional, that I may hear, items on the news, conversations with friends, etc. I’m never without a notepad and pen, even when on holiday, so that I can quickly jot something down if it comes to mind. With crime novels, it’s relatively easy. I’ve drawn many times on my own police experiences, and on the experiences of friends and colleagues who I’m still in regular contact with. Just at this moment, I have so many workable ideas that I doubt I’ll ever be able to put them all into book form – which would be a shame, but there you go.
- If you were to start your own book club, what authors would you ask to join?
I’m not going to name names, but I think it’s only fair to give the new guys and girls as much exposure as the old reliables. When I first joined HarperCollins, that was because my editor at Avon had given me a chance to show them what I could do. Although I’d had a career in television, that, on its own, never cuts much ice with novel publishers, as these two forms of writing are distinctly different disciplines – so they were taking a chance on me. As such, I guess I would like to extend the same favour to those lesser lights in the genre. I mean obviously, if it was in my power, I’d sign up all those major crime and thriller writers of the moment, and probably quite a few horror writers as well – I think we all know who these major players are, but I hope I’d also leave it open to the up-and-comers and the newbies. As a hobby, I edit the ‘Terror Tales’ series, which are region-specific anthologies of contemporary horror stories, currently coming out through Telos Publishing. I try to give as many lesser-known writers as I can slots in these. It only seems fair to put something back into the industry that has done so well for me, and that’s not just for purposes of philanthropy, but because the dark fiction industry needs to be nourished and re-seeded on an almost constant basis. The big names at the top are not getting any younger.
- What’s your favourite opening line from a book?
I don’t know about favourite opening line, but I can give you my favourite opening passage, which is from ‘Jack’s Return Home’, as written by Ted Lewis back in 1970. It still remains one of my favourite crime novels. Most modern students will know it better as Get Carter, which was the film version made one year later. I think in pure atmosphere terms, there has never been a more effective opening than this:
The rain rained.
It hadn’t stopped since Euston. Inside the train, it was close, the kind of closeness that makes your fingernails dirty even when all you’re doing is sitting there looking out of the blurring windows. Watching the dirty backs of houses scudding along under the half-light clouds. Just sitting and looking and not even fidgeting.
- What’s your favourite part of the writing process?
Well, I always enjoy the brainstorming stage, when I’m actually developing workable ideas, because I tend to do that with my wife and business partner, Cathy, when we’re out at dinner. But probably the most relaxing part of the operation is the second draft. I tend to dictate my first draft (more about that later), and then type it up. But the second draft is when the writing really starts, when, having already broken the back of the job by getting it down on paper, I find that I can play mood-music in the background as I work my way through the often jumbled text, shaping and reshaping it, turning it into something approximating a finished book, without requiring to use too much elbow-grease. Okay, it’s not always an idyllic experience; sometimes you realise you just got it plain wrong the first time and have no choice but to comprehensively rewrite, but that’s rare – and as I say, if I play the right kind of background music, the whole thing tends to breeze past. Those are the best days at work, I think.
- What do you think makes a good crime book?
One word – jeopardy. Now, don’t get me wrong; I love a good mystery as much as every other crime fan. I love rich characterisation and clever plotting. I love beautiful writing, even if the subject matter is not in itself beautiful. But I think jeopardy, i.e. the danger you feel in the narrative, is indispensable. If you can create a frisson of fear … if you can make your readers shudder at the thought of the peril facing your leads, then that is a job well done, in my view. On the strength of that, I suppose you could say that I’m not a massive fan of cosy crime literature. I prefer all my stuff to be edgy.
- From books and films, who has been your favourite bad guy?
Well, I always like my villains, if possible, to be colourful, outlandish, mad, bad and dangerous to know. I’m not a fan of the kind of banal, miserable losers that most villains are in real life – ultimate no-hopers with a depressing existence and nothing to look forward to. So, I guess I go for the extremes. I always thought that Auric Goldfinger was a marvellous villain, and superbly played by Gert Frobe in the movie. Who can forget: ‘No Mr. Bond, I expect you to die!’ But in the novel, he was a way more bizarre character than that. He really hit all my buttons, especially as his scheme was so insanely ingenious. Another Bond villain I liked was Red Grant in ‘From Russia With Love’, who was Bond’s first psychotic opponent, a trained assassin who preferred to kill on a lunar cycle. Again, he was realised amazingly on film by Robert Shaw, who completely convinced us that this was a guy who might genuinely be more than a match for 007. Awesome stuff. Equally, I don’t think you can beat the Joker in the ‘Batman’ comics. The notion that someone can exist who is quite simply an agent of chaos, who wants to see the world burn for its own sake, is a thriller writer’s dream. What deadlier adversary could you have than that?
- If Detective Mark Heckenberg was adapted for screen, who do you imagine would play the role?
If I could have anyone, it would be Tom Hardy. That’s not just because he’s the man of the moment, it’s also because he’s got the acting chops to pull it off. I’ve never seen Heck as a straightforward brute or he-man. Tom Hardy can do brute of course, but as he showed in ‘Locke’, he can also do sympathetic and nuanced characters. Tom’s name was actually mentioned the first time I had a meeting with a TV company who were interested in the project, but their interest wasn’t pursued. If anyone ever asks me, I always put Tom forward. For a time, I quite liked the Irish actor, Damien Molony. Everything about him felt right. But he’s since done two other cop shows, ‘Ripper Street’ and ‘Suspects’, so I’d be surprised if he wanted to do a third.
- If you were stranded on a desert island, which three books would you bring with you to pass the time?
Funnily enough, whenever I’m asked questions like this, I have to answer that none of them would be crime fiction. Whitley Strieber’s 1978 horror novel, ‘The Wolfen’, is probably the closest because it follows a murder enquiry in the slum districts of New York City, though the culprits turn out to be a werewolf pack lurking in the derelict buildings. Just forget the poor-quality movie version, that novel is intensely terrifying and ticks all my boxes for a page-turning read.
The second one is ‘The Saxon Tapestry’ by Sile Rice, from 1991. You almost never hear about this book now, but it’s a heavyweight historical action/romance, telling the tale of the Norman Conquest of England in 1066, and the subsequent English uprising led by Hereward the Wake. Incredibly violent, the battle scenes are some of the most vivid I’ve ever read, but it’s also heartbreakingly sad and written with a poetic flourish that I’ve seldom seen anywhere else in prose. I cannot understand how the author is not better known.
The third one, which kind of falls in between both those titles, is ‘Grendel’ by John Gardner, published in 1971, which re-tells the ‘Beowulf’ and ‘Grendel’ saga but from the perspective of the monster. Again, it’s a marvellously detailed picture of the Dark Age world, but it’s also a philosophical text and hugely imaginative. If you look at it from the point of view of a crime reader, of course, Grendel is the prototype serial killer, a disgruntled loner who responds to being disenfranchised by society with the only thing he does well, violence. You won’t need to be a fan of Norse mythology or Tokienesque fantasy to enjoy this one.
- What area do you suggest a budding writer should concentrate on to further their abilities
Learn the lessons of rejection. Sorry, but I’ve no time for newcomers who won’t listen to the advice of those who’ve gone ahead of them. We all of us get rejections in our early days (and not just then either, trust me). As the old saying goes, we should keep all our rejection slips so that we can gloatingly wallpaper our studies with them when we become successful. It’s no picnic at the time, being told that your work isn’t up to scratch. But if you want to get on, you need to turn this disappointment to your advantage. So, if an editor or a publisher or a producer takes the time to tell you why he/she has rejected your work, you don’t have to accept it, but you at least need to take note of it. And if you hear the same thing again and again, the likelihood is that the fault lies with you, not them. In which case, if you can put it right, that could be the difference between getting rejected again when you next submit … or making a sale. The other thing is, and it’s tied to that, you’re going to have to tough these rejections out. This is no job for a snowflake. But if it helps, remember this – it’s a long, rocky road for all of us, and we trip lots of times, but we only actually fail the day we give up.
- When sitting down to write, what is the one item you need beside you?
My most indispensable item is my Dictaphone. It always dictate my first drafts while I’m out walking the dogs. It gets me away from my desk, is probably good for me, and it certainly keeps our two springer spaniels in the trim. It also enables me to throw all sorts of stuff in there. As I said previously, once I’m actually typing it up, transforming what’s often just a stream of consciousness, a procession of ideas and broken sentences (though arranged roughly in the correct order), into actual text, I can discard anything that doesn’t work … but at least I get to hear it first on tape, so it gives me a pretty good idea. I think I can safely say that my Dictaphone is as essential a part of my process now as my keyboard.
- And finally Paul do you have any projects or releases on the horizon which you would like to share with the readers of the website?
Well, ‘Ashes to Ashes’, the next Heck novel, is out on April 6, and I think I’ve already mentioned the next Lucy Clayburn novel, ‘Shadows’, which is due for publication on October 19 this year. Lucy, a young uniformed PC, went undercover as a Manchester prostitute to catch a female sex-killer in the first book, but in this one she’ll be facing a very different and more complex kind of villain. I think I can also reveal that ‘War Wolf’ – at least that was its working-title – which I co-wrote with regular screenwriter, Andy Briggs, is a movie adapted from an original novel of mine, and is now in preproduction, with Simon West, of ‘Con Air’ fame, at the directorial helm. It’s a medieval action-horror, set during the 100 Years War, and it follows a company of English knights, at the end of their tether after years of fighting, but who suddenly come up against a more ferocious foe than any of them have ever encountered before. Information updates about all these and other projects regularly appear on my blog, which can be found here – or you can chat to me, if you so wish, on Twitter and Facebook, and I shall always hand over whatever info I have available.
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