An Interview for Shots Magazine
John Baker, the writer, and Sam Turner, the hero of Poet in the Gutter and Death Minus Zero both live in York.
‘It’s a city I know,’ Baker explains. ‘After a spell in Scandinavia we came to live in York around 1980. Reluctantly on my part, as it seemed like coming to live in a fairground. The centre of the city is always packed with tourists, and a new hotel and a new museum seem to open every week.
‘But after a time it struck me that there are two cities: the public one that everyone sees, and a hidden one that is in its turn divided between rich and poor. A lot of cash is spent every year making sure that the banks of the old city walls are teeming with daffodils, but there are other, residential, parts of the city where the only things that grow are neglect and corruption.
‘It seemed to me that that would make a good setting for a contemporary crime novel. A city of contrasts. A city with a smile on its face, but with fear in its guts. That’s York.’
Sam Turner, Bakers fictional private eye has something of an obsession with Bob Dylan, and some reviewers have wondered about that. ‘I was listening to one of the old albums one day, I think it was Blood on the Tracks. And the idea that first came to me was to write a novel around a couple who identified with Bob Dylan and Joan Baez. It was going to be a comic novel about a working class couple, they might even be folk singers. Anyway I had a couple of stabs at it, and then put it on one side.
‘Later, when I was filling out the character of Sam Turner for Poet in the Gutter, I realised how his way of thinking would lend itself to the Dylan lyrics. So he became a dedicated Dylan fan. He’s from that generation, and he’s nostalgic from time to time.
‘But he can also be a violent character. When faced with a psychopath like Norman in Death Minus Zero, there is a feeling that Sam might be unstoppable. But at the same time he shows compassion, for example in the way he treats Geordie, the homeless kid, in Poet in the Gutter. He swings between various emotions, and that is another way in which the Dylan fixation is useful. It is a way of placing him, of fixing him. You can pin him down with Dylan, but that is the only thing you can pin him down with. In all other respects he is a free spirit.
‘ Baker has spent this year on another book. ‘I’m coming to the end of the third Sam Turner mystery. It’s called King of the Streets and it’s about abuse, self abuse, childhood abuse, or at least that’s the theme behind it. The actual plot deals with a couple of body builders who think it would be funny to make Sam Turner dead.
‘The possibility of using black humour is what drew me to crime fiction in the first place. And yes, I hope it’s there in all of my books. You have to laugh, and we’re a long time dead. King of the Streets will be published next year, and in the meantime I’ll be writing the fourth book in the series, Walking with Ghosts. I want to give centre stage to Geordie and Marie in that one. Sam will still be there, but he’s going to take a back seat, and let Geordie and Marie come into their own.’
But humour isn’t John Baker’s only concern. There is a gritty and realistic edge to the books. ‘I bring up the issue of homelessness in all three of the novels. For me this is the big one in these years leading up to the millennium. For a supposedly civilized society to have people dossing out on the streets – hell, it’s just sickening. The government’s got a lot to answer for. The honourable thing to do, for Thatcher, Major, and the rest of them, would be to shoot themselves. But they seem quite content to torture the rest of us instead.
‘I was brought up in Hull. Working class, council estate. Destiny took me away from the physical reality, but there are dark shadows imprinted on my soul, that’ll never go away. I have two younger sisters who still live close to my parental home. But I live in the middle class hell of York.
I’ve moved from place to place. A long time in a community on the North York Moors. When my sons were small we lived in a barn in the south of France for a while. Then we were in Oslo, where my wife comes from. Two years there, before arriving in York and settling down. It’s good to have a place you know well enough to write about.
‘It’s not unusual for the the plot of a novel to come to me while I’m writing the previous one. With character based writing the character, Sam or Geordie, or whoever it might be, just get an urge to go off in a certain direction. I have to reign them in for the duration of the novel, but by that time the seed is sown for at least part of the action of the next novel. I don’t write a synopsis. What I try to do is use Hemingway’s advice: to write one true sentence. That means writing a lot of sentences sometimes. But when it comes I have the ability to recognise it. And that might be the first sentence of the novel. For instance, with Poet in the Gutter, I wrote: “Sam went to the men’s group because it was winter and cold in the flat, and because he was off the booze, and because another marriage had gone bust.” And as soon as I got that down I knew that Sam would carry the book. I didn’t know anything else about him at that time. But I’d found a key. And from there on in it was plain sailing.’
Poet in the Gutter was published by St. Martin’s in the USA. ‘The German translation is due to be published in May, and then the German edition of Death Minus Zero will follow about six months later. There’s a French edition planned as well. They’ve generally had good reviews. Good notices in The Literary Review and the Times Literary Supplement , The Daily Mail, Independent on Sunday and the Yorkshire Post. Crimetime and SHOTS are always very kind.’