Monday, January 25, 2016

A Conversation with Crime Novelist Simon Duke

Omnimystery News: Author Interview with Simon Duke

We are delighted to welcome author Simon Duke to Omnimystery News today.

Simon's new crime novel is The Perfectionist (January 2016 trade paperback and ebook formats) and we recently had the chance to spend some time with him talking about his work.

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Omnimystery News: Introduce us to the lead characters of your crime novels. What is it about them that appeals to you as a writer?

Simon Duke
Photo provided courtesy of
Simon Duke

Simon Duke: I have a soft spot for loners. Kyle Hunt, the lead protagonist in my first novel, Out of Bounds (published in 2014), is an anxious man, someone who fights for his family's safeguard, someone who tries his best in risky situations. He's someone with inner demons and past angst. And he can only find his way out using his brain capacity and by persevering. I like the idea that my lead protagonists, be it Kyle or Gerry Stokes in The Perfectionist, have realistic behaviors. When threatened, these guys don't just pull out guns and shoot to kill. Instead we read their minds and connect with their emotions. Gerry Stokes is a seasoned business journalist working for the Chicago Tribune — a real hotshot with talent and flair, yet he's also human: he's a self-centered, obnoxious and arrogant guy with a soft spot for sex with prostitutes. But like Kyle, Gerry Stokes is a complex character. The morbidity and seriousness of the investigation will change him, and so will his relationship with the woman who puts him on the track in the first place, Sarah Howard. Gerry's shift in attitude enables him to open his eyes to what he needs to preserve from the evil surrounding him during his investigation to track down the killer. Gerry's evolution in the book is gradual and we grow to like his character. I also have a journalistic background and I've always dreamed of stumbling on a killer myself and pursuing him before submitting the proof of his guilt to the police. So in some ways, Gerry Stokes lives that dream for me.

OMN: Into which genre would you place your books?

SD: If I were to put a label on my writing, then I'd call it crime fiction. It's my favorite genre. Not only does it incorporate elements of the genres suspense, thriller, hard-boiled, procedural and the like, but it also enables me to write eye-catching stories while seamlessly blending in well-written prose (well, at least I like to think so!) Crime fiction offers a lot of scope for writers. Within the genre I can weave in all sorts of other styles such as romance, history, psychology, and even social commentary. Besides, crime fiction is a great place to put your ordinary Joe in extraordinary circumstances, in situations that people would never experience in ordinary life. This then gives me possibility of putting my characters through a lot of human emotions, and that makes the process even more interesting.

OMN: When did you begin writing?

SD: I started work on Out of Bounds in 2012 (N.B. Out of Bounds was published in 2014). Until then I'd only managed to write short stories, and my writing was infrequent, despite my mind over-spilling with ideas and scenari. One day, I had car trouble on my way to work. The mechanic quoted me a hefty amount of money to carry out the necessary repair work — an amount I wasn't willing to invest. I began commuting by train and rediscovered the joys of reading. By doing so I discovered crime fiction authors whom I'd never heard of before. Back then I was subject to binge reading. I'd read a novel or two per week, good ones and not so good ones. All this influenced me immensely. And at some point I asked myself, and why not me? This led me to writing the opening scene of Out of Bounds. Nine months later, I'd penned down the draft of my first novel.

OMN: Tell us a little more about your writing process.

SD: I have tons of story ideas, and I note them down as soon as they begin to gain in substance in my mind. If inspired, I will look into them deeper and weigh the possibility of taking some further and write them up. Basically, I start off with a story idea and write it down in a summary. Either the rest of the story comes to me straight away, or I begin writing a few scenes and things gradually fall into place. And then at some point I stand back and reflect on the full narrative. As soon as I have a solid enough backbone to a story, I flesh it out and divide the result into chapters. From there on, I write bit after bit, chapter after chapter. I set myself realistic goals (such as a certain amount of words to write per week/month) and above all do not hate myself if for some reason or another I do not meet my targets. There are times when the inspiration does come and I have to cash in to churn out more words than usual. Other times I realize the storyline is weak and needs beefing up, or I have a change in mind with regard to how events unfold. I then go back to the backbone and fit these new ideas in. The same applies to my characters. Some make the final cut, others aren't so lucky!

OMN: Where do you most often find yourself writing?

SD: I reckon you could say the way my writing environment looks is a preview of my personality. I like my desk to be tidy with ample room for typing away on the keyboard and for frantic mouse movements. I like to only have the essential things on the desk. I need my work station to be organized to avoid unnecessary distraction. That way I have a comfortable basis to start writing and my mind can wander off and do the rest. I guess I'm what you'd call a methodical writer. I like to isolate myself and write. But at other times I can work with surrounding noise. It can help boost creativity.

OMN: Do you listen to music while you write?

SD: As I get more comfortable with my writing I tend to put on a melody from time to time. It mustn't be too distracting though and make me want to dance on my chair instead of writing! So I opt most often for music without lyrics and make sure there is a constant flow coming through. Sometimes I like it soft and classical or jazzy, but when I need some more pace I listen to electro music too. I enjoy some movie soundtracks too. However before I reach that stage, I need silence. Silence is a prerequisite. I need it for my deepest thinking and concentration spans.

OMN: How do you go about researching the plot points of your stories?

SD: I enjoy researching prior and during my writing. Most often it is carried out using the Internet or by reading books and watching videos. For locations, I tend to favor the places I've already been to and that I'm more or less familiar with. However, there again, the Internet is a handy tool when it comes to researching details (street names, addresses, overall vibe of the area …) when lacking your own photographic support. The challenge whilst writing The Perfectionist was exploring the minds of serial killers and reading about some pretty gruesome and deterring details of what these people did, and still do. However, it was a very intense and exciting experience. I've always wanted to write about serial killers. They fascinate me. In fiction, serial killers are highly stylized and even real-life serial killers have become celebrity monsters through media coverage. Serial killer behavior seems inexplicable to us, so we feel a duty to try and understand what their motives are. The killer in The Perfectionist could be considered the ultimate serial killer. He seemingly chooses his victims at random across America; he has been at large for more than two decades; he has flown under the radar of the cops and the FBI by navigating through the loopholes of the federal law enforcement system; he respects a unique and horrific modus operandi and fine-tunes methods of execution to seek artistic perfection. In the world of law enforcement, there exists a scale on which to rate killers. My killer does not feature on the scale.

OMN: If we could send you anywhere in the world to research the setting for a book, where would it be?

SD: Out of Bounds is set in Charleston, SC, and in Florida. Events in The Perfectionist take place all across America. My third novel is based in the UK and in France — countries I am extremely familiar with (born in the former, currently living in the latter). However, I am tempted by writing about some faraway place or a more exotic location allowing me to explore new horizons/backgrounds for my stories. Having said that, there are so many places I have yet to discover. So to loosely answer your question, I'd be happy to write about a manhunt/murder mystery in the Alaskan wild as much as I'd be curious to visit a major city in an emerging nation and write about the mafia based there — kind of what Gregory David Roberts did in part in his novel, Shantaram.

OMN: What are some of your outside interests?

SD: This may sound like a cliché, but I do spend a lot of time thinking about my characters and projecting myself in them. I'm always trying to note down ideas and make progress on my writing research, which can come under many forms: books, movies, inspiring TV series, or simply everyday conversation and happenings. And every once in a while I meet inspirational people who somehow help me, by brainstorming along with me or, in their own subtle ways, by keeping my creative flame alive. I also enjoy travelling, being outdoors, and practicing sport whenever possible. It broadens my perspectives and helps me recharge the batteries. In recent times I've also become a projectionist at my local movie theater where I'm getting more and more involved in movie and theme choices as well as the running of the operation.

OMN: What is the best advice you've received as an author?

SD: I reckon I haven't been in the business of writing long enough to have accumulated many words of wisdom or takeaway catchphrases by opinion preachers. So far, the critics haven't been too harsh with me. The overall impression I had is that some additional editing may have been required to improve Out of Bounds and make the writing less clunky at bits. This criticism was acknowledged and taken on board for The Perfectionist. Those who have read it so far have told me that my achievement is greater and the writing flows better. It's more straight to the point and focused. A literary agent once told me that I write with flair. I'd argue that — no matter what the critics or your friends and family tell you — you mustn't be afraid to write, even if you think that what you're writing isn't of the highest quality. That's a normal feeling. I believe that it's the writing exercise that's important. Put as much as you can on paper. It's only afterwards that you do the sorting out. You have to believe in yourself and your capacity as a writer because if you don't, no-one else will. If you don't get published via the traditional route, then don't get discouraged; you can self-publish. Your will to succeed and your desire to share your stories with the outside is a powerful motivator. Simply put, never give up.

OMN: Complete this sentence for us: "I am a crime novelist and thus I am also …".

SD: … what George Orwell would call a "thought-criminal". My mind is geared a little differently than your average man in the street; slightly quirky and sometimes brooding, but my heart's in the right place!

OMN: Have any specific authors or books influenced how and what you write today?

SD: My influences are multiple and varied. The literature influences are also quite numerous. However, if I had to come up with a shortlist of inspirational authors and books which helped me write The Perfectionist, I'd have to mention the works of Michael Connelly (e.g. The Poet), RJ Ellory (e.g. The Anniversary Man), Henning Mankell (The Kurt Wallander series), James Ellroy (e.g. Killer on the Road), Shane Stevens (By Reason of Insanity), as well as possibly Dennis Lehane, John Grisham, and even Paul Auster and Ernest Hemingway. Authors I read influence me in one way or another, and I'm always on the lookout for new favorite writers. I love discovering new talents, even if that means I can be sometimes disappointed by what I stumble upon.

OMN: You mentioned that you work in a local movie theater. What kinds of films do you enjoy watching?

SD: I'm a movie geek who's loved cinema since childhood. I even studied films in the UK when at university. I grew up watching many American film classics and loved the 80s films and music (some of it). I grew fond of the modern gangster and of the transition from film noir and epic to the more gritty and realistic portrayal of crime in more recent times. Some direct influences for The Perfectionist include Manhunter (Michael Mann, 1986), Thief (Michael Mann, 1981), Se7en (David Fincher, 1995), Zodiac (David Fincher, 2007), Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (John McNaughton, 1986), Natural Born Killers (Oliver Stone, 1994) … I have been told that my writing is rather visual. That's true because I like to picture scenes in my head as if I were maintaining a mental storyboard. Nursing an image in my mind is a means to more easily translate thoughts into words. On November 16th, I posted a video trailer for The Perfectionist, which I produced myself. I integrated some very eerie footage, still shots of the book cover, and I incorporated (courtesy of the Marmoset music agency) a track by Josh Garrels. I'm very proud of the result, and putting aside the promotional nature of the video it's real proof of my love for writing and the cinema, all merged into one. (You can watch the video, which is embedded, below.)

OMN: What's next for you?

SD: On the writing scene, I will continue to actively promote The Perfectionist and I've finished the first draft of my third novel which I intend to submit to agents and publishers in the not too distant future. I also plan to partake in upcoming short story competitions. In a nutshell, I'll keep at it. On the personal side, I'm a recently divorced man and I intend to remain happy and passionate. It's the dawn of a new chapter in my life and I'm ready to take on any new challenges that'll allow me to thrive.

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Simon Duke was born in Stoke-on-Trent (UK) in 1979. He obtained a B.A. in French with Film Studies in 2001 and has been working in journalism ever since. He currently lives in France.

For more information about the author, please visit his website and his author page on Goodreads, or find him on Facebook and Twitter.

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The Perfectionist by Simon Duke

The Perfectionist by Simon Duke

A Crime Novel

Publisher: Simon Duke

Amazon.com Print/Kindle Format(s)BN.com Print/Nook Format(s)iTunes iBook FormatKobo eBook Format

Iowa, 1988. An unidentified severed head is found rotting in a corn field. Confronted with this gruesome discovery, Gerry Stokes — an arrogant and obnoxious newspaper reporter — agrees to cover up the affair. But the truth can't be concealed forever.

More than twenty years later, Stokes must finally atone for his errors as the past returns with a vengeance. Forced into an investigation to discover what happened all those years ago, he stumbles upon a sordid truth: the victim is one of many; people seemingly chosen at random across America by a serial killer at large for more than two decades; a killer with a unique and horrific modus operandi who's flown under the radar. Still at large the killer seeks to achieve artistic perfection in his methods of execution. He is "The Perfectionist".

While tracking the killer under the cloak of FBI suspicion, Stokes sets himself an ambitious target and potential path to fame: write a book that leads the police to the killer, a first in the history of publishing.

The stakes are high and the pressure is on. Stokes is in the race of his life to discover The Perfectionist's identity and publish his bestseller, while forced to bend the notion of what is ethically right.

The Perfectionist by Simon Duke

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Lance Wright owns and manages Omnimystery, a Family of Mystery Websites, which had its origin as Hidden Staircase Mystery Books in 1986. As the scope of the business expanded, first into book reviews — Mysterious Reviews — and later into information for and reviews of mystery and suspense television and film, all sites were consolidated under the Omnimystery brand in 2006.

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