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Reflections of a working writer and reader

 

 

An Interview by Jon Jordan

Interview with John Baker
by Jon Jordan

8th September 2001

Jon: You write two different series, Sam Turner and Stone Lewis. How would you describe them to a person who hasn’t read them yet? What are the differences in them?

John Baker: Sam Turner is a private eye, living and working in York, England. He’s not young. In his time he’s overdosed on alcohol and women and the combination hasn’t led to him doing himself any favours. Nowadays he’s a reformed character. Well, almost. He’s trying. In the Sam Turner Detective Agency he’s surrounded himself with a collection of eccentric but loyal helpers. There’s Geordie an ex-street kid who was abandoned by his mother; Celia, an octogenarian retired schoolteacher; Marie, the widow of Sam’s friend; and JD, a crime writer who plays in a rock band and spouts philosophy at the drop of a hat.

Stone Lewis is younger than Sam and an ex-con. He spent eleven years in store on a murder rap. Stone lives in the northern port of Hull and he works in an internet cafe. He’s trying to keep his nose clean but he gets into trouble because of the characters he knows from his past. He’s supported by his family, his clinically depressed mother and his always optimistic Aunt Nell and her boyfriend, Heartbreak.

Jon: What did you do before you were a published author?

John Baker: At various times I’ve worked as a van driver, a milkman, an office worker, a factory and building-site worker. I spent several years living and working with mentally challenged adults on an agricultural commune in the North Yorkshire Moors. I’ve sold brushes and books and worked in the catering industry and I’ve worked with computers, providing systems and solutions for small businesses. I was an apprentice writer.

Jon: Before settling in York, you lived in some other pretty interesting places. Why York, and why put Sam Turner there?

John Baker: We lived in a barn in the south of France for a while, then in a flat in Oslo. But we wanted to get back to the UK so the kids could go to school. Could’ve been anywhere – we were looking in Bristol and in other towns and finally came up with a place to rent in York. Just chance, or destiny, call it what you like. But it’s interesting to think that Sam Turner might’ve been a native of Bristol if we hadn’t stumbled over an affordable place to live in York.

Jon: What’s more important to you as a writer, plot and details or characters ?

John Baker: Character. Always character. Plot arises out of character, details, they all come out of character. But a character isn’t an individual in isolation. Character is the sum of, and more than the sum of all of the components that go into the making of an individual. Genetics, family history, life experiences, relationships and place. In a subjective sense the place you live, the city or the countryside, the land around you knows that you are there and it is only human arrogance that allows us to consider that we occupy the land, but at the same time fail to see that the land also occupies us. One of the reasons why bad novels are bad is not that the characters do not live, but that they do not live with one another.

Jon: Does being a Father affect your writing?

John Baker: It offers countless excuses and reasons why I don’t (or can’t) write today.

Jon: The books sometimes have a rather dark humor about them. How important is having a sense of humor?

John Baker:
Very important. A novel has to breath. There have to be moments of intense suspense and to balance that there has to be lighter moments, or what appear to be lighter moments. But humor isn’t easy to write, and neither is it always what it seems. Paul Theroux once said: ‘Comedy is the public version of a private darkness. The funnier it is, the more one must speculate on how much terror lies hidden.’

Jon: Who are some of the authors you enjoy reading?

John Baker: I love lists like this. But they can never be complete. At some point you have to abandon them. Another day might produce a list completely different.. Jacob Arjouni, Erskine Caldwell, Robert Campbell, Angela Carter, Joseph Conrad, KC Constantine, Dostoyevski, Sarah Dunant, William Faulkner, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ford Madox Ford, Graham Greene, Hammett, Thomas Hardy, John Harvey, Ernest Hemingway, George V. Higgins, Tony Hillerman, Sebastien Japrisot, Milan Kundera, John le Carre, Elmore Leonard, Arthur Lyons, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Flannery O’Conner, Jean Rhys, Les Roberts, Carol Shields, Gillian Slovo, Robert Louis Stevenson, Mark Twain, Charles Willeford.

Jon: Can you tell us anything about The Meanest Flood?

John Baker: Not a lot. I’m in the middle of writing it. It will be the 6th Sam Turner Novel. Although it’s set in the York floods a significant part of the book is set in Norway. I wanted to take Geordie to Oslo.

Jon: Best Bond? Connery, Moore, Dalton?

John Baker: Connery. (Later edit: Daniel Craig).

Jon: Do you write on a regular schedule?

John Baker: I roll out of bed in the morning and don’t have breakfast. I write until I have to stop. Writing is the thing I do best so I give it the best time of the day.

Jon: How much research do you do?

John Baker: As little as possible. I like to get facts right, and I do enough research to ensure that I can fight my corner. But in the novels I write about the things that scare me and preoccupy me now. I’m not a polemical writer and I don’t address political events or attitudes head-on. On the other hand I do feel it is a writer’s responsibility to deal with the issues of our time that are screaming out to be addressed. I’m not angry, I’m enraged at the casual acceptance of racism and misogyny in our society. The pap that is pushed out by record companies, by Hollywood and the media generally under the banner of popular culture makes me want to weep. I hate governments. I think we deserve better than they’ve ever had on offer.

Jon: Sam Turner listens to a lot of Bob Dylan. What kind of music do you listen to?

John Baker: Different things. I like a lot of new country. KD Lang and Mary Black. A few years ago I started going to the Opera and manage about four or five times a year. I like dance music as well, Piazzola and The Gypsy Kings. John Fogerty. Sara Vaughn and Billie Holiday. Piaf. Dylan. Madonna. Beethoven, especially the late string quartets. Jacques Brel, Villa-Lobos. Adriana Varela. The Boss. This could turn into another list. Time to bail out.

Jon: What are some of your favourite movies?

John Baker: The African Queen, All That Jazz, Änglagård (Angel Farm), Atlantic City, The Big Sleep, Body Heat, Bonny & Clyde, Breathless, Caberet, Cape Fear, Citizen Kane, Death in Venice, The Defiant Ones, Double Indemnity, The French Connection, Giant, Jules et Jim, The Key, Key Largo, La Dolce Vita, The Ladykillers, La Notte, Looking for Richard, The Maltese Falcon, Marnie, The Piano, Prizzi’s Honor, Psycho, Scener ur ett äktenskap (Scenes from a Marriage), The Talented Mr Ripley, Thelma & Louise, The Third Man, The Young Lions . . .

Jon: So what is something about you that would surprise people to know?

John Baker: Couple of things. I’m frightened of flying. I’ve got my own teeth.

Jon: You’re part of a group called Murder Squad. ( tres cool name!) How did this come about?

John Baker: First of all, a better route to the murdersquad site is: http://www.murdersquad.co.uk. Murder Squad is a group of seven crime writers who live in the North of England. We got together so that we could collectively improve our individual profiles. Most publishers these days keep their promotional budgets for established big-hitters, and although we were all getting excellent reviews, our book sales were not reflected in the glowing words of the critics Basically, we put ourselves on the road. We give talks and readings at libraries, bookshops, festivals, schools. You name it, we’ll go there if there’s a bunch of people who want to hear what we have to say or give an ear to our work. And it has paid off handsomely. We now appear regularly at all the venues and festivals that didn’t used to invite us as individuals. We have done something like 200 gigs since Murder Squad was started, less than two years ago, and we now
have enough invitations to pick and choose which ones we’ll appear at. Busy life. And we sell a lot more books.

Jon: If you could change one thing about publishing, what would it be?

John Baker: Less publications and more commitment to quality work.

Jon: Do you think once Americans start to read your books you’ll be a hit over here too? It seems to me that they would do very well on this side of the pond.

John Baker: I think the American market would take to my books, given the chance. But it seems that American publishers have enough native born writers to promote at the present time. That is a situation which will change eventually, and I’m quite happy to wait. Some of the Sam Turner novels have been translated into German and French and I’d also like to see them translated into other European languages.

Jon: Do you enjoy the secondary aspects of being a writer? The signings, conventions and the like?

John Baker: Yes and no. I’m not too keen being on the road by myself. Strange faces every day, crap restaurant food, not being able to write, all that. But working with Murder Squad members is different. There is a rapport between us, an empathy that makes the work we are doing on the road into a feel-good social experience.

Jon: If you could live in another era, when and where would that be?

John Baker: I don’t want to go back. Find me some future Utopia, please.

Jon: If you could travel back and spend some time with a teenaged John Baker, what would you have to say to him?

John Baker: Relax, son.

Jon: Do you spend a lot of time on your website? It’s very well done. (shameless plug time!)

John Baker: The website is at http://johnbakersblog.co.uk and I don’t spend a lot of time on it because I also look after Anna’s (my partner’s) site. She’s a photographer and has an anarchic relationship to computer technology. I look after the Murder Squad site, and I’m also responsible for the website of the British Crime Writers’ Association which is a sister organization to the MWA. But I spend enough time on my own site to keep it up to date. I’m forever tinkering away at it, and give it, I suppose, an hour or so each week. Most of my time is spent writing novels. I work slowly and have never completed any of the books in under a year. This doesn’t really leave me a lot of time for other things.

Jon: And, what we all want to know…… What’s the one thing always in your refrigerator?

John Baker: Garlic.