Interview for One Stop Fiction December 2016

Hello, everyone! My name is Andrew Barrett, and I work as a Senior CSI in England. I also write crime thrillers with a forensic slant, which is pretty lucky, really. I’ve been doing both for twenty years and couldn’t imagine my life without either of them in it.

Who is the real Andrew Barrett?

The real Andrew Barrett is the guy sitting here typing when ‘normal’ people are out drinking or watching television. The real me is like most writers, somewhat quiet, perhaps even introvert, and I do seem to spend an unhealthy amount of time inside my own head.
I’m very lucky in that I have a wonderful lady in my life, who understands my peculiarities, and we’re blessed with a beautiful daughter. I love them both so much that it really does hurt.
Put me in my uniform and send me to work and I become a different animal. Partly. I spend most of my day alone, so I go and play inside my head as much as possible because it’s safe there, and I know my way around pretty well. When I have to be around people I find that ‘introvert’ doesn’t work too well, so I become the loud one, the one everyone gets along with, the one everyone is a little wary of. And yes, that sometimes does get me into trouble – serious trouble. But overall, it’s me, and I don’t intend to change.

As a crime scene examiner how did you get into this field, what evidence do you collect and what has been your most frustrating case to date?

Back in the mid-90s I was an engine builder for a Caterpillar (the earth-movers) dealership, and I could see trouble on the horizon, both in the form of a take-over from a rival company, and from my back, which was becoming ever more painful with each passing month. I needed a change and quickly. I got a change, but not quickly; it took over a year from the application to getting a start date with West Yorkshire Police. Back then, before forensic degrees were necessary or popular, they took on people with ‘life skills’, and allegedly I fell into this group, along with 1100 other applicants. Lucky eh?
Evidence? Name it, and I’ve collected it. Everything from partly eaten and digested bits of people (yes, really), to IEDs to insects. The more mundane evidence that I collect on a regular basis consists of nothing more exciting than footwear impressions, fingerprints, DNA swabs, maybe a paint sample or two, and perhaps glass too. It all depends upon what is required, while remembering that we usually only have one chance to collect meaningful evidence before it’s gone. We tend to err on the side of caution.
I can’t really nail down my most frustrating case but I can say how frustrating it is to work on a job for so long, collecting all the evidence you can see, and then have no return on that effort. It’s something you have to learn to live with; I suspect 90% of what we collect is unused.

With your type of work comes certain dangers. At one stage you received a death threat from a criminal you helped to convict. How do you deal with this? How much of what you do on the job is included in your writing? Have you ever been tempted to write about a true crime case you have worked?

It’s true, I did receive a death threat within my first few months on the job. I utterly bricked it and expected to die fairly soon afterwards. If that happened today I think I would be far more pragmatic about it: if you drive around in a police van, you almost expect youths to throw fireworks at you. It’s an occupational hazard, but it’s not at all pleasant. The latest Eddie short story (not yet released) deals with a death threat; and I’ve written it from my own perspective. So read it, and you’ll know how I would deal with it if it happened today.
We do our job alone for the most part (with no police presence), and you build a sense for what’s going on around you, and even though you promise yourself you won’t take any chances, you do. Only last week a colleague of mine was almost throttled by a guy with an electrical cable. It wakes you up.
I try to be as realistic as I can in my writing. I don’t want to bring my Force into disrepute, but most of the Eddie Collins stuff is pretty damned close. Of course, I’ve never walled anyone by the throat as he has, but I’ve thought about it a lot. And we never go off and continue a police investigation with a detective friend as he has – although the temptation is there. But we talk like he does, use the same language he does, and is annoyed by the same things.
I haven’t written about any of the crime scenes I’ve attended. I’m simply not allowed to. Doubtless, other officers will keep notes to later publish their memoirs, but not me. I did use an incident that I attended in my first five or six years as a basis for a story, and that story turned out to be Stealing Elgar. It involved the Russian mafia and some terrorist chaps. Can’t say more than that.

You have been quoted as saying, “Forensic evidence is an art like black magic; ‘facts’ are determined by interpretation. Or misinterpretation.” Some forensic scientists would say, “Forensic Science allows the facts to speak for themselves.” Does this quotation that you used for your first novel, A Long Time Dead still hold true for you, or have you changed your perspective since then?

It’s still true. Always will be. The ‘black magic’ part of that statement refers to how people perceive a forensic scene examination. If I had a quid for every time someone says “It must be interesting”, I could retire tomorrow. Most people see fingerprints develop under your brush and wow at the sight. You can do the same thing with a tub of talc and a makeup brush. It’s not magic, it just seems that way to some people.
The ‘facts’ part of that statement really is determined by interpretation – in some cases. If I were to swab a knife for DNA at a murder scene, and I got a ‘hit’ back from the lab, you might think I’d just bagged us a murderer, right? Not necessarily so. Say you shook the murderer by the hand an hour before he committed that crime, there’s a very real chance I would be swabbing your DNA from that knife. Ten years ago, that statement might have been a little bit far-fetched, but not at all today. Contamination is the enemy of CSI, and so determining the facts really is a case of interpretation.

Your writing spans about twenty years and yet you have only recently started to publish your stories? Why was that?

Considering I started putting pen to paper in the mid-80s, I’m a little embarrassed to have so few books to my name. The first ones I wrote were horror. And they were horrible. I have three of them somewhere and no one will ever see them. I don’t know why I don’t just destroy them; maybe I’m a sentimentalist, perhaps I see them as part of my writing apprenticeship, I don’t know.
Anyhow, I didn’t begin to write seriously until 1996. I loved it (and I still do, although now I’ve become obsessive about writing) and wrote the Roger Conniston trilogy (A Long Time Dead, Stealing Elgar, and No More Tears), attempting the traditional route to publishing – there was no Amazon back then. Long story short, I got an agent, and after a year of hard work, he bailed on me, so I had a choice: I either cried into my beer and never wrote another word, or I wrote for me, I wrote stories because I enjoyed writing stories. Writing won.
And then, in 2012, (after a six year gap from books, writing scripts instead) a friend of mine told me there was a way that I could self-publish. I put up one of my horror stories, Charlotte’s Lodge, and it bombed. It bombed because it was very bad. Embarrassed, I pulled it from Amazon. However, A Long Time Dead went wild, and I recall that very same friend emailing me to say “In the time it’s taken me to write this, you’ve earned a fiver!” I was gobsmacked. That was back in the day when having a freebie for five days paid real dividends.

Over the last twenty years how have you grown and developed as a writer?

I’ve inadvertently answered part of this question in Q5, but the bit I missed out was this: voice is the ability to think of something and write it down so that it comes out the other end exactly as you intended.
I’ve heard lots of people talking about ‘voice’ over the years, and I used to think it was rubbish. But it’s not rubbish at all. It’s very, very true. It hit me, almost physically, when I was writing Stealing Elgar. I was susceptible to others’ writing styles back then, and subconsciously mimicked them. And one day I remember letting go of all the rules I’d gleaned and ignoring the authors’ voices in my head, and just writing… like me. It was a revelation. I had found my own voice, and I felt very comfortable at last writing the words that came into my head and adding the meaning to them that only I could.
Technically, I write better now than I did back then too. I use similes and metaphors where they fit well (don’t ask how I know where they fit well!), and I keep passive sentences down to a minimum, same with adjectives and adverbs, and even character tags. I tend to be lean with description and exposition, and my prose is simple – just tell the story.

What are the essential differences between your Roger Conniston and Eddie Collins’ series and the main protagonists in each?

The most obvious difference is the time frame. All Roger’s books were written between 1996 and say, 2003, and I set those books in the then present day. However, I like to think that running through all the crime thrillers I’ve written there is one theme: justice. Be that justice in the legal sense, or natural justice according to Conniston or Collins, doesn’t really matter. So long as good is seen to come out on top, that’s all the matters.
The old series tend more toward being a personal story for Roger; his growth from being wrongly accused of murder in A Long Time Dead, to his becoming unwittingly embroiled with Britain’s most audacious robber in Stealing Elgar, and finally, in No More Tears, to taking his retribution. In these books, we see the protagonist struggling with a personal problem that’s been thrust upon him, and his only way out is to right a wrong.
For the Eddie Collins series, with the exception of The Third Rule, all of his books are fundamentally external stories with a bit of his personal life weaved into them. It seems to be the way of most crime thrillers these days, including Eddie’s Black by Rose, Sword of Damocles, and the as yet unpublished, Ledston Luck: a protagonist goes out to right a wrong, and along the way we see him experience and overcome a personal problem. Hopefully we get to see him grow along the way, we become used to him and how he will react.
The exception to this is The Third Rule. This book is a heavenly mixture of internal stress and external pressure, but not just for Eddie Collins. I wanted to really stretch the theme of a new capital punishment to the limits, and I included a brace of other characters to illustrate how devastating such an ill-conceived concept could be.

How important are name choices for your characters and do these name choices influence the way you write?

Roger Conniston started out as Jonathan Benedict (no idea where that name came from). He was a nice guy for most of the time, and if you ruffled his feathers, he’d most likely get quite cross. I eventually tired of him and his name. But I came up with a name I liked, and one that seemed, to me, to command a little more respect: Roger Conniston. So I set about changing all the ‘Jonathan Benedicts for ‘Roger Conniston, and that helped with how I perceived him, and so it changed the way I wrote him. He became stronger, less wimpy and slightly more aggressive. Since I’ve always preferred reading aggressive characters, I finally found someone I could project onto the page with more authority than I had before.
At the end of No More Tears I wanted to begin a new series of books, but I was determined that this new series had to be championed by someone with even more gusto, and even more aggression. In walked Mr Eddie Collins. Look at him funny and he’d biff you on the nose. Wow, he was my kind of hero.
But he wasn’t everyone’s kind of hero. A few people have said they hated him at the beginning of The Third Rule, and that was music to my ears. People liked the story, but they were giving special mention to Eddie. That’s what I aimed for; gone was wishy-washy Benedict, and in came Collins with that look in his eyes.
And by the end of the book, they loved him. It had worked. He was believable.

When you first published Third Rule you had written a 240,000 word tome that you later trimmed back by removing 80, 000 words, which is a novel in its own right. How painful was that process for you and what would you have done differently?

The Third Rule was my Magnus Opus. I gave myself a free hand to write about all the aspects of England’s new capital punishment. This including the Minister who introduced them, and how he came to power; how The Rules impacted an artist and his girlfriend living in a squat; and how they impacted a man who is thrust into someone else’s limelight when his son is killed in a hit-and-run.
That man was Eddie Collins, who was suffering a marriage breakdown at the time. I wanted to see how low I could get him before his fighting spirit took over. Out of all the characters, he was the only one who possessed the skills needed to deal with his situation; in his case, to find out the truth behind his son’s death, and behind the atrocities imposed on the nation by a cruel government.
That’s why The Third Rule ended up being so long (and I simply don’t know when to shut up!). From an artistic point of view, it was beautiful. From a commercial point of view, it was a disaster. Few people want to read a 1000 page book when they could read three ‘normal’ ones.
After experimenting with chopping the book into thirds and selling them as instalments (it doesn’t work, trust me), I elected to cut out any extraneous bits in the hope of making it more appealing to those who wanted a regular read. It now stands at 160 thousand words, which is still long, but perhaps not quite so daunting. Stealing Elgar is that length, and it sells really well.
And if I’m honest, I think the book is much sharper, much more punchy because of it. I enjoyed the process; I knew I had enough length to accommodate any aggressive cuts I chose to make. So I made them all. The only things I wouldn’t compromise on were the characters. Each one of those mentioned above, and several others, had to stay so they could tell their own version of this story.
I have learned a valuable lesson. Keep your word count around 80k to 120k, and you’re in safe territory; anything over that and you risk losing potential readers. So the only thing I could have done differently, had I still wanted the book out there, would have been to limit how deeply into each character’s story I dared to tread.

Lord and Master was your first attempt at writing which you have said will never see the light of day. What is wrong with the novel that makes you say that, and do you think that now, after all these years and with the writing experience you now have, you could turn this manuscript into something worth publishing?

I wrote Lord and Master around 1985, because really, writing is a doddle, right? It was a linear story that had no learning behind it. I knew what I wanted to say, but I didn’t know how to say it. The only thing I really remember about that story is the euphoria of actually finishing a book.
I haven’t looked at that book for decades. Probably never will again. Knavesmire followed Lord and Master, and though still not worthy of daylight, I can appreciate how it took me from a sketch to a painting. Charlotte’s Lodge was my third book, and in fairness, it’s not all that bad. It suffers from multiple viewpoints and a prose that makes me cringe. This is the only one of my early books that I attempted to resuscitate. But by the third or fourth chapter, my toes were curling and my teeth were itching. I couldn’t stand re-writing it any longer and had to give up. I’ll never go back, believing it to be just another stepping stone on my way to where I am now. So in that respect, it’s as valuable as all the other bottom-drawer manuscripts.

Do you think that authors who are pushy and thick-skinned have more success at marketing their work? How does your own character help or impede your marketing progress?

I’m positive that an outgoing writer gains massively when it comes to publicising their books.
I envy those who are good with self-promotion. They say that to be an indie writer these days means being good at marketing too. This is my big failing. I have a new novel and a new short story just about finished and ready to go, so let’s see if I can up my game and learn how others go about it.
Eddie Collins is, as I’ve described, probably not one of life’s easiest people to get along with. But he is honest, and hard-hitting. It should be easy to market him I guess, but for someone like me who rarely shouts from the rooftops, it remains an insurmountable obstacle.

What does the writing future hold for Andy Barrett?

Once I have in place a launch strategy for Ledston Luck, Eddie’s new novel, and The Note, Eddie’s new short, then I shall cast them out and see what happens.
I’ve enjoyed writing Eddie so very much; he’s a breath of fresh air for me, and his outlook on life is on a par with my own to some extent. So he is cathartic. I hope to continue writing him though who knows what his future will be, I certainly don’t.
And while I adore writing crime thrillers, I intend branching out into other genres too, time permitting. I’d quite like to finish a horror/paranormal book I began about four years ago.
I live to write, and will never stop. I will measure my success on whether I can support my family by writing. If I can ever do that, then I have won my dream.

Many thanks to One Stop Fiction for their kind permission to show the interview here. Please visit their site where you’ll find all manner of things for readers, free books in the genre you like.

Crime and thriller writing by a CSI