Nightmares, death threats and the future – and possible end – of Dennis Milne
British crime fiction is known for its police procedurals but author Simon Kernick is making a name for himself with fast-paced, action-packed thrillers. I recently caught up with Simon at Harrogate Crime Festival and we chatted about his travels, his plans for the future and why he’s going to owe me royalties off one of his future books.
Sandra Ruttan: What have you been doing to keep yourself so busy?
Simon Kernick: I’ve been in the process of moving house, writing, and that’s about it actually. After writing Relentless, I was very keen to write a thriller with the same sort of structure, obviously a different story. I felt like having come up with something like that I felt the follow-on ought to be a similar type of book, particularly as I’m hopeful that when it comes out in paperback it will do well. It would be nice to have something that follows on from it and so I’ve been under a lot of pressure with the new book and it’s not been anything like as easy to write as Relentless was, so it’s been a slower process.
I also abandoned a book last year after ten months and wrote Relentless quite quickly but it sort of put my out of sync anyway. Although I managed to get it put out in shops this June, my whole writing process had been put back so I’m running a lot later, so I’ve just been busy with that, really.
This time of year normally, I would have expected to have finished and delivered a book and just be slowly preparing for the next, but that’s not the case. Obviously moving house has been quite a big thing. I’m getting rid of a lot of my books, unfortunately. I’ve just got so many that I’ve used up all available loft space at my parents place, I’ve put as much into my new house as possible and I’ve still got boxes and boxes I don’t know what to do with. You know what it’s like when you read a lot, you get too many books. So I’ve been trying to organize getting rid of them, which is always a sad state.
Sandra Ruttan: You’ve mentioned your process (of writing) in terms of scheduling but how do you structure your day, how do you structure your approach?
Simon Kernick: I try to structure it as a normal working day. I do the bulk of my work Monday to Friday and I do 80% of it between the hours of 9 and 5. If I’m in a hurry I’ll work whatever needs working. If I’m tight on a delivery I’ll work the evenings as well but in general I work for a couple of hours in the morning, have some lunch, work for a couple of hours in the afternoon and then take a break and then maybe do another hour if I can get it in. It’s quite difficult, especially in the early days of a book where everything is new, it’s quite hard to work for more than five hours over the course of a day.
Sandra Ruttan: You also did a lot of traveling this year.
Simon Kernick: I have. I’ve been away quite a bit.
Sandra Ruttan: And is that for the next book?
Simon Kernick: It was, but it’s not anymore. I’ve got to go to Cambodia in November/December for the seventh book, which will be the return of Dennis Milne, probably, possibly, for the last time. I was originally going to locate it in Thailand but I went to Thailand and I had a great time but I think Cambodia’s a better locale for it. It’s a little bit more off the beaten track and there’s a bit more of a wild west feel about it. The traveling should have been work related, but it didn’t turn out that way.
Sandra Ruttan: Can you give us any clues about what you plan to do with that book about Milne?
Simon Kernick: It’s going to start in the present day, whatever that is when the book’s finished, in Cambodia and something will happen in the first chapter that will bring back events from Dennis Milne’s past and it will be linked to a case he was involved in eight or nine years earlier. A large part of the book will be set in the past, about the time he was becoming corrupt, and it will involve this old case, which has links into his situation in present-day Cambodia, and then the book will finish in the present day Cambodia. The case from the past will finally be tied up, and so, in effect, it will
be two mini books in one, one of almost ten years ago and one now.
Sandra Ruttan: So none of it, other than what’s taking place in the past, will be taking place in England?
Simon Kernick: No. Only what’s in the past will be taking place in England.
Thing is I can’t move him into England very easily now. He came back last time. It’s difficult to know, being a fugitive, how much you can do it and I don’t know how much further I can take him as a character. I have a pretty good idea in mind as to what this book’s going to be about, but it might be a good end point for him, although I do like him as a character.
Sandra Ruttan: I thought it would be great if you teamed up with somebody and had the book where Milne actually got caught. You could pick your detective. Would it be Thorne? Who would you pick, if you were going to team up with somebody and have Milne get put away behind bars?
Simon Kernick: God, I don’t know. Writing, as you know, is such a solitary game I’ve never thought about teaming up with someone. Who would it be? A detective? I was going to say Mulder and Scully but… I’d have Matt Scudder catch him somehow. Lawrence Block. I’m a huge fan of his work and if I teamed up with anyone I’d always want to team up with my hero, so it would be with him and with Scudder. But how on earth you’d organize a situation where the two would meet, I do not know, but it is a fantasy, isn’t it? I would never team up in real life.
Sandra Ruttan: You don’t think so?
Simon Kernick: No. Some writers manage it, obviously, and that was touched upon in the opening ceremony last night. I don’t think there are very many authors for whom it would work and I’m certainly not one of them.
Sandra Ruttan: What amazes me is these authors that are married to each other and write together –
Simon Kernick: Oh, Christ, yeah.
Sandra Ruttan: I think that would be the death of one of us, for sure. I don’t know how you’d survive that.
Simon Kernick: I would hate it. I mean, it is a solitary profession in many ways. Obviously for them it’s not quite solitary but I sort of like it like that as well. It works for me, in so far as you discipline yourself to solve the obstacles and the problems. And if you need to bounce ideas off people you can always bounce ideas off people within the industry you know, but more likely the people that are buying your book. Your editor and your agent. Part of their job is to help you overcome the obstacles.
Sandra Ruttan: When you scrapped the book that you’d worked on last year, did you just trust your instincts on that or did you go to your editor and your agent?
Simon Kernick: I went to my editor. She was more than happy for me to scrap it. My instincts were already telling me that that’s what I should do. I just really wanted confirmation.
When I have a problem and I go to a professional, like my editor, I usually go to that person with a very strong idea of what I want to do anyway and I just use it as confirmation. So I follow my instincts, but it’s always nice to have a little bit of support and help along the way.
But it was a joint decision last year. They were more than happy to see it scrapped.
Sandra Ruttan: When you were at Harrogate last year you actually mentioned – I think it was in the opening night – when I’d asked a question about plotting books ahead, you said something about planning your books more than one ahead at that point.
Simon Kernick: Yes, that’s why it was easy to write Relentless. I’d already had a pretty good idea that that was going to be the book that followed the one I was writing, so therefore it wasn’t a difficult move to switch.
Sandra Ruttan: So you’re always thinking a few books ahead of the game.
Simon Kernick: Usually. One book after the one I’m working. I try to think ahead of, so obviously I know that Dennis Milne’s is the seventh book. Well, I’ve got a pretty good idea, but I haven’t gone any further than that.
Sandra Ruttan: How much of that do you pre-plot?
Simon Kernick: More and more, as time goes by. One of the advantages of making a big mistake and abandoning a book is that it teaches you that pre-planning is very important, so nowadays I try to write a much much more detailed synopsis before I get going, than I ever did in the past.
Sandra Ruttan: I understand the idea for Relentless came from a dream that you had at a conference.
Simon Kernick: It did. At Bouchercon 2004. I had a nightmare, which is basically the first chapter. In the first chapter, obviously the protagonist was me, and I got the phone call which is that first chapter.
So yeah, virtually word for work, everything in that first chapter is what happened in that nightmare. It actually scared me something incredible. It was so terrifying I didn’t even think of it as a plot for about six hours afterwards
Sandra Ruttan: You didn’t feel the need to get that down on paper right then?
Simon Kernick: It was such a terrifying dream. It’s why I had to make the main protagonist in the book, Tom Meron, such a normal character because I’m a fairly normal person. It terrified me, so I wanted it to get across how much it terrified him.
It was such a horrible nightmare, and I don’t normally have nightmares. In fact, I don’t normally remember my dreams. It blew my head off. I didn’t even think about writing it down. In fact, and this is deadly true, I went and started talking about the nightmare I had, first to the author Dan Fesperman while walking down the street and then secondly I was talking about it to Mark Billingham and Chris Mooney. It was only when I was going through it in detail and they started to look really interested that I suddenly realized, “Ah! Here’s a plot idea.” And then I told them
not to use any of it or I’d kill them.
Thankfully they didn’t, as far as I’m aware.
It wouldn’t help them too much because it still only gives them the first ten pages. You’ve got to write another 320 on the back of that.
Sandra Ruttan: Well, then it ends up being a completely different book after that.
Simon Kernick: Exactly.
Sandra Ruttan: So where do you usually get your ideas from?
Simon Kernick: It varies. I’d love to be able to say I could get them off nightmares but I just get these ideas sometimes. For the sixth book I woke up next to my wife one morning, in bed and I just imagined what it would be like if I opened my eyes and I was next to a headless corpse.
Sandra Ruttan: Lovely!
Simon Kernick: I didn’t tell her that. And then I just had the idea for the start of the book. The guy wakes up in the morning and the person next to him has their head cut off and he knows who it was, he’s met her once before, but he’s been drugged, and then the phone rings. And someone’s setting him up, and that’s the beginning of the book.
Sandra Ruttan: Which book is that?
Simon Kernick: I haven’t got a title for it, but that’s the one I’m writing now. It’s a similar structure to Relentless in so far as it’s a race against time thriller –
Sandra Ruttan: So you’re moving more into the thriller vein?
Simon Kernick: I think so. I’d always like to think of my books as having a thriller element in so far as they tend to be fast moving and with a fair degree of action. But yeah, I’m moving more and more down that route.
I find, current book excepted, them easier to write, in general. When you’re writing a really fast-paced book, sometimes it lends itself to actually writing it fast as well and certainly that was the case with Relentless. It’s less this time around but it’s certainly an entertaining way of putting together a book and I think there’s a shortage of thrillers like that, which take place in Britain and are written by British authors. It seems to be more of a North American genre.
Sandra Ruttan: Actually, I was just going to say that.
Simon Kernick: You look at the new blood coming through, the new books coming out and they do tend to be more police procedural in this country. Not so much private detectives. I suppose I saw a bit of a gap in the market. Some of the big North American authors – Harlan Coben would be the prime example – have been very, very successful writing these very very quick, pacey, twisty thrillers. And there doesn’t seem to be much equivalent here.
Sandra Ruttan: Why do you think that is?
Simon Kernick: You know what? I have no idea. I cannot understand it. I’m at a loss. Maybe, potentially, one of the reasons is that traditionally there’s been less gun crime in this country than perhaps there has been in other places, most notably American, and because there’s a lack of gun ownership and we operate with a comparatively unarmed police force, it maybe doesn’t lend itself to thriller writing. I don’t know. That’s the only reason I can give. It’s a constant surprise to me.
Sandra Ruttan: And yet I’m seeing that there is gun crime here.
Simon Kernick: Well, there is. There’s plenty of it now. Maybe, like a lot of things, it takes a while to filter through into the writing.
Sandra Ruttan: That could be. There’s also a lot of knife violence.
Simon Kernick: Oh yeah. Violent crime in Britain is higher than anywhere else in the western world, excluding murder, but that doesn’t lend itself particularly to good crime books. A lot of it is senseless knife
violence or mugging or whatever and people like to read an interesting book with a few twists and turns. A lot of crime is very blunt, unpleasant and in your face and doesn’t really provide you with a feeling of anything other than mild disgust that this sort of thing goes on.
Sandra Ruttan: So, what is it about Milne that appeals to people? What is it about that character?
Simon Kernick: I think it’s because he wants to do the right thing. And I think he knows his limitations and he knows what is wrong with him and he isn’t satisfied with what he is. I think it’s because he has a guilty conscience. So therefore it makes him more human, more believable. If not sympathetic, at least people are more able to understand him. Also, the fact that he tries wherever possible to only hurt those people who truly deserve it makes him better than obviously someone who would just be involved in more random violence. To say he means well is not quite right, but I do think he’s honest.
Sandra Ruttan: He’s more misguided.
Simon Kernick: Very misguided. He’s not a nice person, particularly. He’s a very selfish person but he still believes in something. He’s quite a tragic character as well, because you can see that he’s ruined his life by the path he’s taken but perhaps the path he’s taken wasn’t all his fault. A lot of things conspired against him. He’s got… not excuses, but some justification for how he turned out. Life, the police force, his career were against him, in some ways.
He’s quite an entertaining character as well. He’s got a deadpan humour.
Sandra Ruttan: Is that why you like writing him?
Simon Kernick: I like writing him because he’s a very easy character to write. Although I hesitate to talk about getting inside your characters’ heads too much, I always feel very natural writing him. In a way, perhaps more so than any of my other characters. He sort of almost writes himself on the page.
So that’s the reason I like writing him. I don’t know if it’s that I empathize with him or what but he’s certainly by far the easiest character.
Sandra Ruttan: Or maybe he’s a character that it’s easier to hand issues over to him and let him deal with them in a different way?
Simon Kernick: Yeah. And he’s quite a deep thinker and he’s quite a philosophical character in many ways and that’s quite nice as well. Some of his views on life I find a bit harsh but I do sympathize with others and his sort of natural quest for justice. He’s a character I do feel quite strongly for.
Sandra Ruttan: If anybody was going to make a movie out of those two books, who would you want to see play him?
Simon Kernick: I always used to say Clive Owen and I’d still stick with that. Clive Owen. He’s really made it big in the last three or four years, but he’s not that famous. Anyone really famous? I don’t know.
Sandra Ruttan: I don’t think you want somebody really famous because then it’s about them. It’s not about the character.
You write a lot in the first person narrative. Now, I haven’t read Relentless yet-
Simon Kernick: That’s half and half.
Sandra Ruttan: What do you see as the advantage of writing in first person as opposed to third and why do you do the first and third mix?
Simon Kernick: I sort of do what comes naturally. I, in may ways, prefer first person. I did The Murder Exchange in two first-person narratives. That worked well for The Murder Exchange but I don’t think that’s a method that you can continue using. It’s a little bit too unusual. It works once.
Some characters just work in the third person. In The Crime Trade I started writing the undercover cop, Jenner, in the first person. He didn’t work. He was a classic third person and I don’t know why.
I go with what comes naturally. The first and third is increasingly being used by other writers at the moment and I always wanted to use it but I was always a bit scared to use it. The advantage is it lets you use the most natural voice you want and you can sort of pick and choose and it also allows you to get closer to the character, obviously, in the third person but it’s quite nice to be able to see other things that are happening that the first person character can’t see, hence stick in the third person as well. If you can get it right, it seems to marry the best of both worlds.
It’s almost an acquired taste. You’ve sort of got to go over the barrier of doing it but you’ve got to go with what you feel natural in. It’s always felt natural to write like that, like it’s always felt
natural to write just the first person narrative with Dennis Milne. I never have any third person in his, except the first few pages in A Good Day to Die. In general, he’s always first person.
Sandra Ruttan: Is there any scene that you’ve written that you regret now or something you decided not to publish because you weren’t comfortable with it?
Simon Kernick: Obviously the book I wrote that I abandoned, The Last Ten Seconds. It was a thriller that, in the words of my editor, wasn’t thrilling. I can see her point. It was too long. I’ll cannibalize the best bits of it at some point, I’m sure, in the future when and where applicable but in general I would never let it see the light of day I don’t think. I don’t regret that.
In terms of scenes I’ve written that have been published, only one would I change, I think, and that would be the third person piece in the middle of The Murder Exchange where there’s a torture scene.
Sandra Ruttan: The power tools scene?
Simon Kernick: Yeah. Where the guy gets drilled through the knee-cap… Although I thought it was amusing and I played it for laughs, which was probably totally the wrong thing to do, it takes a little bit out of the book, I think. In a way, it looks unnatural in there and I didn’t think so at the time, but now I look back on it. People would read the book and not be perturbed particularly by anything else in the book probably would be perturbed by that scene and it’s one you could easily just remove from the book and you wouldn’t lose anything out of the book itself.
So maybe in hindsight that was too explicit and some of the comment and feedback I got back on it, it was too nasty and graphic and because it was played for laughs it deliberately lessened the actual violence taking place and that wasn’t such a nice idea.
Sandra Ruttan: How much responsibility do you think writers have for how they handle violence?
Simon Kernick: There are fairly broad limits. I don’t think you’ve got that much responsibility. The first answer I was going to give was none, but then, when it’s violence against children or something really gruesome… I think you’ve got to rely on self-censorship. I think you’ve got a bit of a responsibility not to be too extreme if you can help it.
In the end market forces will decide whether or not you’ve been too extreme because if people think that’s really unpleasant they won’t buy your book. It’s like saying is Hollywood action in violent films responsible for violent crime, or video games…
There’s so many factors involved. You responsibility really lies in giving a good service and a good read to your readers.
It’s a question I’ve not actually thought about all that often, to be honest, because I don’t rate my books as extremely violent. But maybe the more cartoonish violence I’ve had in some of the books where it’s been action scenes with people getting killed, maybe that is –
Sandra Ruttan: People seem to be picking up on not even what’s put on camera, but what’s inferred, that doesn’t even happen on the pages.
Simon Kernick: If you’re inferring things happened, if you have background stories whereby something very very unpleasant is happening, where you have a back story attached to a book but where you don’t actually see anything and you know very little about it, I don’t think that’s a problem. Inferring stuff… you’re not like slapping it in people’s faces. I’m not sure there is a problem inferring indirect violence off the page.
Sandra Ruttan: I think it’s interesting because Val said this morning that she just about lost her breakfast reading a scene from Stuart MacBride’s book and Stuart and I discussed that before and he said everything’s off camera. You create it in your mind. It’s all in your head where it happens. Then people blame the author and say it’s too graphic.
Simon Kernick: Then don’t read it. That would be my argument.
Sandra Ruttan: So you don’t consider that when you’re writing?
Simon Kernick: You do, but that’s the sort of self-censorship I’m talking about. I feel my responsibility is to give readers a good read. And if you think you’re doing something that’s really, really extreme, I would take it out. I’m not going out of my way to shock.
Sandra Ruttan: Do you lean more to character-driven or plot-driven? Your Milne stuff seems very character driven and your plots… Sometimes, people who write character-driven, their plots are a little bit lacking, but people keep going back to the stories because they love the character, but I wouldn’t say that about you.
Simon Kernick: The easy answer is actually the truthful answer. I think they’re both as important. I think you can have a great plot but if you have flimsy characters it’s going to show through. And if you’ve got great characters and crap plot… Again, you’ve got to try and marry the two. It’s hard to do it. When I don’t like a character, I kill them off. I didn’t like John Gallan, the detective in The Crime Trade and The Murder Exchange and that’s why he’s no longer about. I’ll never write him again. He’s dead, off-camera, before Relentless has even begun, so that’s the end of him.
I actually like writing my characters. And when I don’t, I get rid of them. If you like writing them, then they do come naturally to you, in a way. If you like them and want to write them, I think that comes off the page. You get to know them in your own head and then they come off better but at the same time, plot is massively important to my books, because I try to write fast-paced, relatively high-octane thrillers, so the plot is of paramount importance.
Sandra Ruttan: What’s the hardest thing for you to write?
Simon Kernick: Descriptions. If I described this building here, this hotel, it would take me half an hour to write three lines. And it still wouldn’t be anything like as good as some other writers I know. A description of a person’s face, I find it very very difficult to write. One of the reasons why I try to keep the descriptions more to a minimum. In some ways, too much description interferes with the narrative pace, but at the same time if I was really really good at it and I found it easy, then I’d probably do more of it.
I can do it. I did it in The Philippines scenes in A Good Day To Die but my God it was hard work to do it. A half page would take me hours and hours and hours whereas a scene of dialogue between two people, I can do three or four pages in an hour sometimes.
Everyone’s got strengths and weaknesses. That’s the hardest part, by a distance. It always has been for me. And I don’t suppose it will ever get easier.
Sandra Ruttan: Probably not. Everybody tells me everything gets harder.
Simon Kernick: It does. Well, it does with me. You get stints where suddenly it gets easy briefly. Relentless was a supremely easy book to write, and thank God, because I’d wasted ten months of work having killed myself on a book that was hard to write and actually turned out shit.
Having followed Relentless I actually had this sort of thought that the next one would be easy as well and it’s been anything but.
It always gets that little bit harder because if you do well, then you’ve got to keep it up. If you’re not doing well, then you’ve got to get to a point where you’re doing well. Even the big writers, the Michael Connelly’s, the Ian Rankin’s, you don’t catch them resting on their laurels. They’re always looking to improve themselves so in that respect, a lot of people are never entirely satisfied and I think writers are particularly that way and therefore that is one of the main reasons why it does become more difficult, because we let it.
Sandra Ruttan: You’re a fan of Sci Fi, aren’t you?
Simon Kernick: I read a lot of sci fi/fantasy when I was a teenager. I wrote more fantasy than sci fi when I was a teenager. I do hanker after writing it again. A lot really depends, obviously, on how I do in crime but you know I would like to write it again. But I’m a fan more of writing it than I am of reading it these days, although I still read fantasy books by David Gemmell. That’s the only genre outside of crime that I’ll read.
Sandra Ruttan: So, what’s the appeal, for you?
Simon Kernick: Well, I’ve always had quite a vivid imagination. Most writers do. But I used to imagine, when I was a kid, fantasy worlds where whole civilizations grew up and I could picture the cities and how they looked and the main streets, and I knew the names of the cities and I knew the people and the histories and because it was a made-up world I found it very interesting and I still… I’ve got a trilogy in my head, for a fantasy book. One of the things I like about it, in it’s own way it’s a look at our own world and what’s happening. You can’t write anything without impinging on your experiences in the real world. The joy of writing fantasy is that you’ve got no limits. There’s no research and you can make up what you want to. I’ve always quite liked that.
Sandra Ruttan: So research isn’t one of your favourite things?
Simon Kernick: Well, it is, but it can be quite hard work and often when you’re writing you hit a point and you’ve come to a technical bit on a police procedural and you’re stopping and having to look it all up.
Particularly in the thriller genre that can be quite a pain because there are lots of things you need to know like how police bug conversations and do surveillance and things like that, which is quite interesting sometimes to read and to learn about, but it can just slow you down. I don’t mind research but the thing about it is I’ve found is sometimes you do one hell of a lot of it and it’s not the big, broad questions, it’s the bloody nitty gritty the whole the time. So it would be nice not to have to bother about that but just to make it whatever the hell you wanted.
Sandra Ruttan: Do you think you might do that?
Simon Kernick: I’d like to think before I die that I’d write that trilogy. The thing is I enjoy writing crime books one hell of a lot. Obviously it pays my wages and if it ain’t broke don’t fix it, so I’m not going to do anything that’s going to take me out of the genre that is making me a living.
Sandra Ruttan: What was the first book that you read that had a significant influence on you and how did it affect you?
Simon Kernick: It’s a good question. Now I’m really trying to think. I loved The Hobbit. It was read to me when I was seven years old and I read it for myself, I think, when I was eight years old. It gave me the impetus to want to write stories because it was such a good yarn, a good story. The fantasy worlds had obviously been the product of a really fertile imagination and I really loved that book. I still remember it very very well.
Sandra Ruttan: Who read it to you?
Simon Kernick: A teacher at my school read it over three separate story times.
In terms of crime books, I was trying to think of the first crime book I ever read. I always found, from a very early stage in my crime writing career, I discovered Lawrence Block in the mid 1990s and the Matt Scudder books and I was getting close to thirty then, but I found they had a very profound effect. Beautifully written and a real sense of atmosphere. And I suppose that was following in the tradition of obviously Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett, the way they could create the mean streets and I wanted to be able to do something like that as well.
Sandra Ruttan: So there was something about that that really appealed to you, that influenced you.
Simon Kernick: Particularly the Dennis Milne character. Obviously The Business of Dying , if I looked at author influences it would be Lawrence Block, Raymond Chandler, for that particular book.
Sandra Ruttan: That wasn’t the first book you wrote, though, was it? Didn’t you have some before that didn’t sell?
Simon Kernick: I had two. One was a gangster-thriller and one was a really unpleasant little thriller. A main character I thought was really good at the time, but actually he was such a nasty piece of work he was horrible, but there was a good twist in the tale. It wasn’t good enough to be published, I don’t think, and the character was so unsympathetic that nobody would like him.
The gangster thriller was too big. Years later I transferred it into word and did a word count on it and it was 200,000 words long. It worked out to 800 pages. But when I wrote it, because I wrote it in a really small font and without big line spaces it came to about 300 pages but actually it was a huge, great tome.
A friend of mine read it and it took him months, and I could never understand why it took him so long. Obviously, now I realize, and it wasn’t good enough. You’d have to cut 400 pages off it. It would have ruined it.
Sandra Ruttan: Well, with what you like to write, why not pick America as a setting?
Simon Kernick: I would do, because obviously it opens doors in America, but the thing is I think you’ve got to write, to a certain degree, about what you know. I don’t know enough about America. I haven’t spent enough time in America to write, I think, a really good, authentic America-set book.
Sandra Ruttan: Don’t you think this would be an excuse for you to do some traveling there?
Simon Kernick: I did at one point think about making a fourth Dennis Milne book, set in America.
Sandra Ruttan: You might change your mind before the end of the next one.
Simon Kernick: I might change my mind before the end of the next one. If anyone did go there it would be him. It’s crossed my mind. But I’ve held back for that reason, not knowing enough to make a good book out of it. Worth a thought.
Sandra Ruttan: I have a whole idea for a plot line for Dennis in North American.
Simon Kernick: You’ll have to tell me over a couple of drinks, and then you’ll want royalties when I use it.
Sandra Ruttan: No, no. (I wouldn’t want the royalties, just the chance to read the book.) So, what’s the one talent in others that you envy and wish that you had?
Simon Kernick: In anything?
Sandra Ruttan: In anything.
Simon Kernick: Well, I tell you what. It actually does come to writing and I know it sounds sort of pedantic but I really wish I could write descriptions. I wish I could write really flowing descriptive scenes without having to kill myself and that’s something I envy in some other writers that I think do it very beautifully. I sometimes wish I could do that. Other than that I’m not envious, actually. I have quite a good life. It’s not a bad one.
As for talents, I wish I could play football better. I’m 40 now anyways, so I’m past all that.
Sandra Ruttan: When is your birthday?
Simon Kernick: It was January 25th. I was 40. Old man I am now.
Sandra Ruttan: Oh, yes. You’re ancient.
Simon Kernick: I am.
Sandra Ruttan: Hardly!
Simon Kernick: Thank you.
Sandra Ruttan: I’m 35. I’m not that far off.
Simon Kernick: You’re a few years off. Don’t worry.
Sandra Ruttan: I don’t know. You’re 40, you’ve got five books out. That’s not bad.
Simon Kernick: That is good news. It’s brilliant. I’m pleased about that, I must admit. I only ever wanted to be a writer, so to have had that dream come true is a massive thing. That’s why I’m not envious.
Sandra Ruttan: Wanting to be a writer, does that go back to The Hobbit?
Simon Kernick: From a very, very young age I wanted to.
Sandra Ruttan: So even before that?
Simon Kernick: I started writing stories when I was six or seven. They’d be three or four line stories, but I wrote them very young. I think it was always in me to write.
Sandra Ruttan: Was that instilled by your parents?
Simon Kernick: No. No one from my family’s ever written. My aunt used to write a little.
Sandra Ruttan: Even just a love of books and stories?
Simon Kernick: I just liked telling stories. For the first formative years I was particularly interested in fantasy because I could create my own worlds and I found that very interesting. My mom used to warn me against writing as a living. She said no writers ever make any money. She was dead right but it hasn’t stopped me.
Sandra Ruttan: And you’ve sort of proven her wrong.
Simon Kernick: Partially.
Sandra Ruttan: Going in a completely different direction… Worst, weirdest, wildest, strangest fan moment. You have anything really bizarre happen?
Simon Kernick: Nothing really bizarre. I wrote in The Murder Exchange about a Glock 17 handgun and I suggested in it that the guy released the safety catch. A guy from the police firearms unit wrote to me and said the Glock 17 handgun doesn’t have an external safety catch. It has three internal safety mechanisms. He went into a lot of detail. He said he used these weapons every day of his life and felt duty-bound to tell me. I just thought that was really strange that, a) he picked up on it, and b) he’d gone to that sort of length. It was a weird thing.
Sandra Ruttan: So, if you were going to be stuck on a deserted island and could have an unlimited supply of one alcoholic beverage, one series of books to read and one character from any of your work brought to life to keep you company, which beverage, which series and which character?
Simon Kernick: Red wine, I’d take as the beverage, because it is my typical choice when I’m at home. And I’m getting to that age when beer puts the weight on. Series of books? I’d take Lawrence Block, the Scudder books. I can always re-read them. Although they’re good plots, they are probably more character-driven than plot-driven because there are such interesting nuances in the Matt Scudder character because he’s such an interesting character but not a nice guy but certainly one you empathize with and I feel I can read them time and time again, so I’d take those.
And Dennis Milne. It’s always been my favourite character and he’s the person I’d bring to life as long as he didn’t shoot me.
Sandra Ruttan: Even though you don’t think he’s a particularly nice character?
Simon Kernick: I think he’d be nice to talk to. And I think I share quite a few traits, apart from a predilection for solving my problems by killing people. He’s like me enough that I think we’d have some interesting conversations.
Sandra Ruttan: Do you find it harder to write women?
Simon Kernick: Yes.
Sandra Ruttan: Why?
Simon Kernick: Because I’m not one? I don’t know. It’s harder. It is harder. I like women. I like women’s company, but I think if you ask a lot of male writers, most find it harder. Just because they’re not one, really.
Sandra Ruttan: But then look at how many women write men.
Simon Kernick: I think women understand men much, much better than men understand women, in real life, in general. They’re more cunning and manipulative. You notice it when you see children. The boys are more easily led and a little bit more upfront. What you see is what you get. With the women, from a very young age, they’re cleverer and they seem to understand which buttons to press with men. So I think they just know a bit more about men then perhaps we know about them, so that’s why they can do it.
Sandra Ruttan: So you experience that with your girls?
Simon Kernick: Yes.
Sandra Ruttan: They know which buttons to push?
Simon Kernick: They certainly do. From a very young age. My three-year-old, she was like that when she was two, and my older one was like that very young. They learn very young. They’re much more intelligent, at an early age, than boys. It evens out, but at a young age they mature much quicker. You can really spot it, because my brother’s got three boys. You see the difference and it’s quite amazing.
Sandra Ruttan: So, a fun one for you. The last five books that you read that you wished you’d written.
Simon Kernick: Mystic River, Dennis Lehane. Gone Baby Gone, Dennis Lehane. I’m going to have to think about this because I’m going to miss ones out. Laura Lippman, Every Secret Thing.
I’m trying to think of ones this year but it goes out of your head. A book called Trails of the
Dead* by a guy called Jon Evans. Canadian guy, actually. That was a really good book. Backpacker serial killer. I really liked that and I thought he described things very very well. I wish I’d written that.
In North America, this book is titled Dark Places
Sandra Ruttan: Do you find you read while you’re writing, you can do that?
Simon Kernick: Not very often. But I was in Egypt in May and I read three or four books there.
Sandra Ruttan: You’ve been traveling a lot.
Simon Kernick: I have. I’ve done really well this year. Oh, Harlan Coben, Just One Look. Blew my head off, the plot in that. I like to think I can do good twists, but I couldn’t twist it that much and get away with it. It was a fine line but he just got away with it with that book. To me, it’s his best stand-alone.
Sandra Ruttan: So what it is about traveling?
Simon Kernick: I like to get away and see things and I think when you work from home and spend a lot of time sat at a desk on your own it’s quite nice to get out and about. I like warm weather, I like blue sea and there’s plenty of places in the world to see. You’ve got years to miss out, you can easily miss out on these things and live to regret it and I really don’t want to think that I could have traveled and I didn’t.
Sandra Ruttan: How many countries have you been to?
Simon Kernick: Twenty-six. There you go. I remembered that one.
Sandra Ruttan: That’s about the same number that I’ve been to. And which ones are one your list that you want to go to that you haven’t been to?
Simon Kernick: Cambodia, for the research for the next trip. Mozambique. South Africa, for scuba diving. And I plan to do that in the next six months if I’ve got any money.
Sandra Ruttan: For scuba diving?
Simon Kernick: Yeah. Scuba diving with big sharks. Particularly in Mozambique. Those are the three countries that I really want to get to and those are the ones that I haven’t been to so far. I’ve never traveled in Africa and I’d like to. I’ve been to Egypt and the Sinai Peninsula but that’s not really Africa.
Sandra Ruttan: Not sub-Sahara. What did you think of Dubai when you went?
Simon Kernick: I didn’t like it that much. It’s very nice, it’s very clean, but I don’t like the desert. That’s one landscape I don’t like. The only reason I go to the desert, like in Egypt, is to go scuba diving. Dubai is flat, sand and lots of buildings. The beaches aren’t that great. It’s very clean, very nice, it doesn’t feel like the Middle East. It feels like the west. It looks a lot like American. Big, big high buildings. Some real architectural feats. Hotels done the shape of sails, but it’s just too man-made.
Sandra Ruttan: Do you prefer to travel for setting, for history or for activities then?
Simon Kernick: Setting, but with a bit of activities. I always like to be near the sea, or never too far from the sea. And hot. I like it hot.
Sandra Ruttan: Do you sail?
Simon Kernick: No. I just dive and swim. I dive a lot. That’s my big outside interest.
Sandra Ruttan: Now, before we wrap this up here, at the beginning of The Murder Exchange – it’s one of my favourite openings ever in a book.
There is no feeling in the world more hopeless, more desperate, more frightening, than when you are standing looking at the end of a gun that’s held steadily and calmly by someone you know isThe Murder Exchange, Simon Kernick
going to kill you.
Did you have some sort of near-death experience? That whole scene, for me, has you right there. You can imagine exactly what this person is feeling as they’re about to die.
Simon Kernick: Yes is the answer. And I can’t talk about it.
Sandra Ruttan: Great! I finally hit on the one thing you won’t talk about.
Simon Kernick: I’m really sorry about that as well. But yes. I did. But I never talk about it.
Sandra Ruttan: Why don’t you talk about it? Can you say that?
Simon Kernick: Because sometimes I forget about it. It’s something that happened to me a long, long time ago. Things like that, maybe they have a more profound effect on you than you thought they did at the time or maybe you just push it away. But I don’t think about it very much any more. In fact, it wouldn’t even have crossed my mind, I might not have thought about it again for another year or two unless you’d mentioned it.
Now it’s a real pisser for you because you want to know what it is and you’d be extremely hard-
pressed to find anyone that knows. Sorry.
Sandra Ruttan: Now you’re going to blame me.
Simon Kernick: That’s right, since you’re the only person I’ve mentioned it to.
Sandra Ruttan: I can’t believe nobody’s ever asked you that before.
Simon Kernick: No, they haven’t. No.
Sandra Ruttan: That’s very sloppy.
Simon Kernick: There you go. You’re a supreme interviewer.
To date, Simon Kernick has released The Business of Dying, The Murder Exchange, The Crime Trade, A Good Day to Die and Relentless. For more information about Simon, his books and his latest competitions, visit
This interview originally appeared in the Fall 2006 issue of Spinetingler Magazine.