In your books, you make Christchurch look very bleak. Is the city really that way? Or do you just see it that way?
This is something I get asked a lot. Christchurch is a fantastic city, I love living here, and I don't see it in the dark way I write about it. I take everything bad I've learned about Christchurch and I exaggerate it for the books to create an atmosphere more suitable for a crime novel. Remember, it's not me who sees Christchurch so darkly - it's the characters. The books are written from the point of view of a serial killer, or from characters who have suffered and are still suffering, whose lives are in danger. Does Christchurch have a dark underbelly? Yes. Is it as bad in real life as in the books? No. But it is the perfect backdrop for my characters to live and play in. I tend to think of Christchurch as a character these days, helping to tie all the books together.
Do you ever base the stories on real crimes or real events?
No. Never. I can’t imagine the victim of a horrific crime would be thinking in their final moments ‘maybe somebody can write a book or a movie and make money of this’.
Trust no One feels like it’s based on you a little… is it?
Yeah - it is. Jerry Gray - the protagonist - is a 49 year old crime writer with Alzheimers. He’s basically living the life I have - except for the Alzheimers, the wife and daughter, and the people dying around him. But the music he listens to, the way he writes, his fondness for Gin and Tonics… that’s all me…
And A Killer Harvest feels different from the others…
That’s because it is. I wrote A Killer Harvest thinking I was writing a young adult novel. That was always the pitch. I knew it was always going to be difficult setting a book that is slightly outside reality in a universe where the other books are set - which is why I wanted to distance it from the others by having it as a young adult. But… in the end it was too dark… so it became an adult novel anyway. Which is cool - and I think the fact it’s so different from the others is what makes it one of my favourites.
The earthquakes that hit Christchurch in 2010 and 2011 aren’t in the books, and your characters are still walking around in a quake-free city. Why is that?
It’s because of the timeline. Here’s part of an author note included in the beginning of the NZ edition of Joe Victim to explain that…
"In the few years leading up to the quake, I’d been working on a horror novel. Why? Well, I always wanted to write a horror. Still do. So what was my book about? Well, it was about an earthquake. Yes – an earthquake would hit the city, destroy half of it, and chapter one was set in the Christchurch Cathedral. The Cathedral was destroyed while a wedding ceremony was taking place (the groom was praying for a natural disaster so he could escape – and that’s what he got) – the floor would open up and beneath it would be… well… skeletons. Of course there were skeletons – this was a horror. The Cathedral, as we know, was damaged beyond repair in the Feb quake. So where is this novel now? It’s exactly where it was before the quake – unfinished, and it will remain unfinished. I don’t want to write a book about an earthquake in Christchurch; not to try and entertain people. Which brings me to the point of this author note – to write or not to write? Over the last two years I’ve been asked a lot about whether the earthquakes will be in the books. You should do it. You shouldn’t do it. People have opinions. Last year a NZ reviewer questioned why I hadn’t included the quake in Collecting Cooper. So I thought it might be helpful to share some of the time line here. I wrote Collecting Cooper in 2010. By the time the Feb quake struck in 2011, Collecting Cooper had gone through editing. It was wrapped up and ready to go. That book would come out in the US later in 2011, but wouldn’t come out in NZ until 2012. So people in NZ were thinking – why is there no earthquake in there? Well, it was simply this – I wrote the book before the earthquake. Ok – so what about The Laughterhouse? Well, I’d written half of The Laughterhouse before the quake. Could I go back and rewrite it to put the quake in it? No. I couldn’t. Because the quake was in Feb, Collecting Cooper is set in March, and The Laughterhouse in April. I can’t have the quake in The Laughterhouse and not in Collecting Cooper – I couldn’t have the characters suddenly walk past a fallen building and say ‘oh, remember that earthquake none of us mentioned in the last book?’ Could I set it a year later, let Feb roll around again, then have the quake? No. The same, folks, is for Joe Victim. Joe Victim is set a month or so after The Laughterhouse. So again no earthquake. There can’t be. The timeline doesn’t allow for it. And why not? Because Joe Victim is set in June – and it’s set one year after The Cleaner – and once you’ve read Joe Victim you’ll understand why. The books are set across the period of one year.
Will the earthquakes be in future books?
Honestly, I don’t know. I really don’t. It can’t have been in the others – it wasn’t possible. Could I use it as a plot device? Have a murder victim be found in the rubble of a quake? I get this question a lot – the answer is no. I would never, ever do that. I’m not going to use the earthquake to try and entertain you – no sir, no way. Well, what about just having the city a year or two on from the quake, and picking up the stories from there? Yeah, maybe I could do that. I’ll think about it. See, the thing is, folks, I really loved the way the city was. There was that city, then there was my darker version of that city, and now there’s the post-earthquake city. Of the three, it’s my darker version that I want to set the stories in. I liked that city. It was Christchurch, but it was never a real Christchurch, if you know what I mean. It was my Christchurch and I had created it for the books. It’s Joe’s and Schroder’s and Theodore Tate’s and Edward Hunter’s Christchurch. It belongs to Charlie Feldman and Caleb Cole and Detective Inspector Landry and Rebecca Kent and Melissa and all the others who have passed between the opening and closing pages of the books. I have fun in this city I’ve created (though my characters don’t seem to…), and it’s here that I try to entertain you. That’s all I’m trying to do here – tell a story and entertain. Nothing more. I’ll figure out in my own time whether the quakes will make it into this world, but for now please just sit back and enjoy the ride…"
What inspired you to become a writer?
I always wanted to be a writer – ever since primary school, but it’s always felt like wanting to be Batman in the sense it’s something you want but can never have. Then when I was nineteen I wrote my first book. It was awful and nobody will ever see it, then I wrote my second, and that was a little better… and it was like that for ten years, each book bringing me closer to writing The Cleaner. So yeah… I have a drawer full of unpublished manuscripts that will never see the light of day, but they were all points on the big learning curve that led to where I am today.
Are the novels standalones? Are there recurring characters?
The books all work as standalones – though there are certainly connections between them. There is a recurring character in half the books now – a private investigator by the name of Theodore Tate – a guy always searching for redemption for some unpleasant things he has done (though his heart is often in the right place). There are plenty of background characters who show up now and then too – I kind of have this family of characters I like to keep checking in on. Of course some of the books are traditional standalones - including the latest, Whatever it Takes.
Who are your favourite crime novelists?
There are lots. But my favourite three are John Connolly, Lee Child, and Michael Connelly. I would never have become a crime writer if it weren’t for these guys.
Ever base any characters on real people?
I got warned about that years ago –you do that, then your friends wonder if this is how you see them. Some of the random people I see in the city are in there, just background characters, like the guy riding his bike with a cardboard tube extended from his nose down to a bag of glue that enabled him to 'multitask'. You see these things and think 'man, I never could have come up with that!' There are a lot of real people I've met over the last year or two I'd like to put into the book - but I'm sure they wouldn't be too happy about the way I portray them. However some characters have been inspired by real people – but certainly not based on them.
How much of the characters are in you? Especially Joe from The Cleaner.
It depends on the character. For the most part, many of the leading characters share some of my views on the world, or on life. Joe is different. I don't share much in common with him - perhaps some of the humour - but nothing more. I hate to think anybody shares the same views he has. But as for the others… the guys out there trying to save their corner of the world, would I behave the same way in the same circumstances? I don't know. Probably not. I think I'd like to behave more like these characters - but the closest I can get is writing about them. The character I have the most in common with is Jerry - the guy I mentioned earlier from Trust No One - the crime writer who pretty much lives an alternate life from me…
Are you nervous when a new book comes out? Or a previous book comes out for the first time in another country?
Absolutely. I don't know if that feeling will ever go away. I hope so. At this stage I freak out with every book release, here or in any other country. I keep hoping for the best and keep expecting the worse. The thing I fear the most is waking up one day to find out that the reviews are telling me I need to get another job.
What would that job be?
Sounds like an ideal job. But if you could do anything other than write novels, or be a gin taster, what would it be?
Dream job is to still be a writer - but for Star Trek. I’m a huge Trekkie. I have Star Trek posters in my office, my kitchen, my lounge, and my dining room - as well as Gorns and Tribbles on my desk and bookcases. I try to slot a Star Trek reference into all of my books these days in the hope one day the folks making the latest Star Trek TV show or movie will think ‘hey, let’s have Paul write this one…’
Do you know what's going to happen in your stories before you begin to write?
No. I just start and see where it goes, then reign it all in with rewrites.
Any tips be for aspiring novelists?
Write every day. Even if it’s only a hundred words – just get that story moving. And rewrites make a huge difference – I can rewrite a book half a dozen times before I’ll even let any friends look at it – and maybe another half a dozen times before sending it to my publisher. It’s hard work – but the payoff is worth it when you see the book getting better and better.
So - you throw your frisbee in every country you go to?
Yep – over the last few years the books have taken me to some pretty cool places. Throwing the frisbee at Niagara Falls, Central Park, The Eiffel Tower, The Parthenon – places like that are so iconic. Over forty countries now.
Is there a list?
There is now… Australia, Austria, Belgium, Canada, China, Croatia, Czech Republic, Denmark, Egypt, England, Fiji, France, French Polynesia, Germany, Greece, Holland, Hungary, Indonesia, India, Italy, Ireland, Malta, Mexico, Monaco, New Caledonia, New Zealand, Qatar, Romania, Scotland, Singapore, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Taiwan, Thailand, Tunisia, Turkey, USA, Vietnam, and Wales.
How’s the arm?
What's your worst nightmare?
I have these dreams where my teeth fall out. It freaks the hell out of me. I’ve been having them for years. I hate it. I wake up and for a moment I think all my teeth are gone. That’s my literal nightmare. My other nightmares are going to book signings and having nobody show up. That happens. It’s pretty awful.
The best decision of your life was?
Well, I’ve certainly made a lot of bad decisions. Too many to list – not that I would list them. There are definitely things I would change if I had a time machine. It’s easy to say something like ‘the best decision was deciding to become a writer’ – which is actually pretty true. It’s led to plenty of cool things – my life would be completely different now. I’d never have been to Europe, or America, or Asia, or anywhere else. I don’t know what I’d be doing. One of the best decisions I’ve made has turned out to be one of the worst. I put a couch in my office a couple of years ago, so I’d have somewhere to lay down and read while taking a break from writing - but I spend too much time reading and napping on it these days. I would say one of the best things I’ve done in the last five years is take up tennis. I’d never played before, and I’m pretty crap at it – but it’s fun. I play every Friday night with a bunch of my friends – hanging out with friends is the best thing in the world.
If I send you my manuscript, can you read it for me and let me know what you think?
Sorry. As much as I appreciate the offer, I don’t read unpublished manuscripts.