Interview with John Bayliss
‘A Fistful of Seaweed’ is being published today. John Bayliss kindly took the time to answer some questions for me.
Tell me a bit about your new book ‘A Fistful of Seaweed’.
My main character is a private detective called Springer, who operates in the sleepy (and slightly seedy) seaside town of Westerby-on-Sea. He knows he’s not the best detective in the world, and he’d much rather leave serious crimes (like murder) to the police. (In fact, the police would rather he left those sort of crimes to the police, too.) Unfortunately, his cases never seem to work out as smoothly as he would like, and he inevitably gets deeper and deeper into trouble.
In ‘A Fistful of Seaweed’ Springer has the task of searching for a missing teenage girl. At one point it appears that the girl he’s looking for doesn’t even exist – until he gets a visit from the missing girl’s big sister, who tries to persuade him to drop the case. From then on, things just spiral out of control – what with an encounter with an old adversary, a lost (possibly stolen) wallet, and a weird, space age religious cult. It’s not too long before Springer uncovers what seems to be a nasty case of people trafficking, and although he doesn’t want to get too involved, he feels obliged to do something about it. Oh, and then there’s the body of an unknown man found beneath Westerby’s historic pier, too.
Where did you get your ideas from for this novel?
Many years ago it occurred to me that most of the detectives in fiction tend to be very clever, if not hyper intelligent – think of Sherlock Holmes or Hercule Poirot – or at least accomplished investigators. I wondered: would it be possible to write a crime novel in which the detective wasn’t that clever? Not stupid, by any means, but just an ordinary sort of person who sometimes misses the obvious clues and gets side tracked by red herrings. Would a crime novel with such a hero work? There was only one way to find out: I had to write it for myself.
So that’s what I did, and not only did it seem to work, but it gave me the material for what could, potentially, become a series of six or seven novels. Also – as the Springer novels quickly started to take a more satirical turn – they give me the opportunity to poke a little gentle fun at some of the conventions of crime fiction, especially film noir and the ‘hard-boiled’ detective genre.
Did you have to do much research for it?
Not a great deal. I did some research into the kind of work that a real private detective does (most of it being very routine fact gathering and not particularly exciting, at least not from a novel writing point of view), and – as the novel is set into 1962 – I had to do some research to get the period details correct. For instance, I found out that a pint of beer cost around two shillings (10p in modern money).
Otherwise, ‘Westerby-on-Sea’ (the town where the novel is set) is largely a fictitious creation of my own, which means I basically make things up as I go along. The procedures followed by the Westerby-on-Sea constabulary would probably make a real policeman cringe with embarrassment – it’s a good job it’s not a real police force that I’m writing about.
How long did it take you to write ‘A Fistful of Seaweed’?
This is hard to answer, because I actually wrote the first version of ‘A Fistful of Seaweed’ some time ago, in around 2002, and that draft took around six months, I think. In that version, Springer was a serious detective in the Philip Marlowe mould – in fact, he wasn’t even called Springer in those days. I have been tinkering with the novel, on and off, ever since. The character of Springer slowly changed into what he is now, and the story evolved in some interesting ways, too. Preparing the final version took about six weeks, but by then I had several older drafts to work from, so most of the characters and the plot were already well defined. So perhaps the honest answer to your question is ‘Somewhere between six weeks and twelve years.’
Where do you do most of your writing?
Anywhere I can find a plug for my laptop. I do 99% of all my writing directly onto my laptop (if you saw my handwriting you would know why), so if there is a comfortable chair, electricity (it would be annoying to get a flat battery when inspiration is in full flow) and (preferably) a source of coffee, then I’m happy. I do like silence, however – some authors like to listen to music as they write, but I find even instrumental music a distraction.
I have a table and a chair in a nice shady nook in the garden, so, if the weather is fine, I plug in an extension lead and write there – that’s probably my favourite place to write, but the British climate tends to limit my opportunities to use it.
Would you like to see either of your novels made into a film?
Yes, I would. I wouldn’t even mind if the producers decided to relocate the film to somewhere exotic like California, or even make up an original story – just as long as the character Springer remains as I wrote him. Although I understand than an actor must be allowed to find his own way of playing the rôle, I would like the Springer on the screen to at least be recognisable as the character I’ve written about.
Are you currently working on any other writing projects?
I am always working on other projects. I think I must have a short attention span, because to me the thought of working exclusively on one project right from start to finish, without some other project to distract me, would be utter purgatory. I can concentrate on one project for perhaps six weeks to two months until I have exhausted all my ideas; then I put that project to one side and work on something completely different for a while. When I do return to the original project, I can approach it with fresh eyes and fresh inspiration.
Just at the moment, in addition to three more Springer novels (one finished all but for a final polish, one in a rather chaotic first draft, and one in the form of a few rather sketchy ideas), I have a science-fiction novel partly complete and another novel started which I find hard to classify but will probably be considered fantasy. There are several other ideas rattling around in the back of my head, too, all desperate to get my attention and become my next big project. They are definitely going to have to wait a while, however, until I can get some of the current projects finished.
Did you always want to be a writer?
Ever since I can remember. I think I must have been around eight years old when I made my first attempt at writing a novel. I was writing Tolkien inspired fantasy epics throughout my teens and wrote my first ‘serious’ novel in my twenties – one that (at first) I thought would win literary awards and make me famous, but I quickly discovered that it was pretty awful and no one would want to read it.
I didn’t make a serious attempt to get published until comparatively recently. I have become my own harshest critic where writing is concerned and I thought that if I didn’t consider my writing good enough to be published, then I was pretty sure that a publisher wouldn’t, either.
John Bayliss was born in Staffordshire and spent most of his life in the English Midlands. He now lives in a seaside town in the West Country and still can’t get over how close he is to the beach. One of his earliest memories was writing a story in primary school, and he basically hasn’t stopped writing since. A veteran of many writers’ groups and creative writing courses, he’s tried his hand at historical fiction, science fiction and fantasy and now he’s having a stab at crime–though with a comic twist.
‘News from Westerby’ website: http://johnbaylissnovelist.wordpress.com/