Is the writing a full-time occupation or a side line-passion-hobby? If not, what’s the day job?
I used to be a solicitor. I still do some legal work, though increasingly less as time goes by. Writing is on the verge of becoming my full-time occupation.
Have you always written?
In my youth I wrote prolifically, then I got children and other commitments such as a job and mortgage payments, and gave up. Now the kids have left home, I’m getting back into it.
From start to finish how long did Confessions of an English Psychopath take to write?
About six months part-time work. I was at it an hour or two a day, most days. That was the first draft. I’ve put in a lot more hours since, refining it.
Are you a plotter, or do you write on the hoof? Did Confessions of an English Psychopath end up as the book you envisaged at the start of the process? Is the title a hat tip at all to Robin Askwith and the 70s Confession films?
I like to begin with a premise which gives me a sense of direction, then I write on the hoof. With COAEP, I began with the concept of a psychopath being recruited to a branch of the British Secret Service. After that, I let the story take me where it would.
Somewhat surprisingly, given my working methods, it ended up how I wanted it to. I was aiming to create a character who’d dispense hyper-violence with charm and impeccable manners, much like John Steed in The Avengers.
The title is certainly a hat-tip to the seventies Confessions films, and, like them, also a nod in the direction of Confessions of an English Opium Eater by Thomas De Quincey.
What it has in common with those – besides the title – is a narrative format in which the central character takes you into his confidence, sharing with you intimate details of the bad things he’s done in life.
Are there any subjects off limits as far as your writing is concerned?
I doubt it. I’ve probably tackled most of the taboo subjects there are, including rape and paedophilia (in as yet unpublished novels). My approach, rather than to say something is off-limits, is to set my moral compass before writing about it.
Do you steal any traits from friends and family for your characters? Would they recognise themselves?
Too many of my friends and family read my books for me to risk doing that. I’d lose a lot of friends if I did! (But I can’t say I’ve never been tempted!)
I’m just embarking on COAEP, I’ve previously enjoyed Manchester Vice and a short story collection of yours – Dirty Noir – both with a foot firmly in the crime-fiction/mystery genre though MV definitely had some horrific elements.
I’ve not tried your other work but you seem to have also dabbled in full on horror, though again from the titles, maybe some humorous undertones – Celebrity Chef Zombie Apocalypse, Zomcats! And Thatchenstein. Do you have a favourite writing genre?
You’ve pretty much summed up what I like to write about and the genres I enjoy: crime/mystery/thriller/horror/humour. I’m hard put to say which I like most, and often there’s crossover in my work – as you’ve observed.
I’d add that I’ve read a lot of pulp fiction, or fiction influenced by pulp, and I always stick to the conventions of pulp in my writing. By that I mean: I try to hook my reader in from the opening sentence and keep him (or her) turning the pages right to the end. To achieve that I employ (like the pulp-writers of old) a fast pace, lots of conflict, and an intriguing plot. I’m sparing on my descriptions of settings – I just sketch them in. For me, it’s all about the people and the scrapes they get into, and I think most readers would agree.
For any potential new readers – can you give a short pitch for each of your titles?
Oh dear – that’s the sort of thing authors dread – doing elevator pitches for their own work. I’ll try. Here goes:
Confessions of an English Psychopath
I hope you don’t mind if I quote Paul Brazill on this book: “Imagine a lethal cocktail of The Ipcress File, The Prisoner, Monty Python, and A Confederacy Of Dunces, and you’re halfway there.”
A crime reporter called Brad Sharpe hooks up with Manchester’s most notorious serial killer. Then he makes an audacious bid to boost his flagging career. Soon you find yourself asking: who’s the bigger criminal, Brad or the serial killer?
Celebrity Chef Zombie Apocalypse
Professor Ted Forsyth invents a machine called the Lazarus Engine. He hails it as a medical breakthrough, claiming it can bring the dead back to life. Indeed it does, but with unforeseen side-effects. When he raises the late celebrity chef Floyd Rampant from the dead, Rampant is turned into a sex-crazed flesh-eating zombie. Rampant creates an army of undead chefs to take over the world, using mankind as the key ingredient in their cordon-bleu meals. Can he be stopped before it’s too late?
President Adolf Doughnut builds a wall to keep the Mexicans out of the USA. Unfortunately it doesn’t keep the zombies out. They climb over it with the aid of ladders.
Desperate for help with his zombie problem, Doughnut flies to England to get advice from the British Prime Minister, who’s put it about that he’s wiped out all the zombies in England.
Unknown to either of them, the Prime Minister has a problem: a plague of zombie cats.
During their meeting, Doughnut, the PM, and their entourages are attacked by the zombie cats. Will any of them survive to tell the tale?
Wally Pratt, a member of a far-right group, inherits the house that was owned by the late Professor Ted Forsyth and with it the Lazarus Engine he invented. Intent on making a name for himself in politics, Pratt builds a creature from body parts that looks like the 80s politician Margaret Thatcher. He brings her to life with the Lazarus Engine and shows her non-stop footage of Thatcher in action. His creature takes it all in, and the former great tory leader is reborn. But unfortunately for Pratt, she is re-born as a sex-crazed flesh-eating monster….Thatchenstein!
Is mystery fiction, easier, harder, different to write than horror?
Different, yes. Easier or harder, no. Not if you’re doing it right, anyway. Of course there are brain-dead horror novels that are easy to write – so easy they should never have been written. Usually they just rely on gore and little else.
But when it comes to the good horror novels, often there’s little distinction to be made between them and mystery fiction.
Let me explain.
Many of the best books are like a game poker the writer plays with his readers. He knows what cards are in his hand, but he only shows a couple of them to the reader. The reader has to guess what he’s got, and the writer has to keep him guessing until the reveal.
This is by definite true of mystery fiction, but it’s true of a lot of horror writing as well. A crude example: if you’ve got a horror story in which some sort of fiend is killing people, you don’t want to let on what the fiend is on page one; far better to show the reader a few corpses first, and keep him guessing about what’s doing the killing. A sophisticated example: have you read The Watcher by Charles Mclean? There’s more mystery in that novel than in 99% of the books out there that call themselves mystery novels. Every time you think you’ve got to the bottom of what’s going on, something else happens and you have to reassess things. By the time you get to the end, your head is spinning.
So the take-home is: good horror is as technical, complex, and difficult to write as mystery fiction or any other form of fiction, up to and including literary fiction.
(On a personal note, literary fiction appears to be regarded as superior to commercial fiction. It isn’t. The best commercial fiction is up there with the best literary fiction; and the worst literary fiction is equally as unreadable as the worst commercial fiction. End of rant!)
What’s been the most satisfying moment of your writing career so far?
That moment when a complete stranger pays money for one of my books then compliments me on how good it is. Every time that happens, I feel great. I’ll never get over it!
What’s the current project in progress? How’s it going?
I’ve just finished a domestic noir novel called Love, Sick. It’s based on the premise that love makes people do terrible things, and all the relationships in it are dysfunctional. As you might expect, the main characters do some pretty bad things in the name of love. I’m looking for a publisher for that.
I’m writing a second novel with similar ideas (tentatively called Love, Sick II). It’s looking good so far.
Is there a story behind your choosing to write under two different names – Jack Strange and Jack D. McLean – neither of which is the name your parents blessed you with?
Yes, kind of. My first published novel was Celebrity Chef Zombie Apocalypse. I didn’t want to put my name to it, because my surname is rather long (Komarnyckyj) and I didn’t think it’d fit too well on a book cover, especially given that the title of the book is rather long. I felt I needed something short and catchy. The ending of CCZA is loosely based on Dr Strangelove, so I decided to use the surname Strange. I chose Jack as the first name because it goes well with Strange.
When I got a new publishing deal with Creativia, they advised me that my kind of book would sell better with a different pen-name, a name more suited to a thriller-writer, so I changed the surname to McLean (because of Alistair Mclean – you no doubt remember him) and I gave myself a middle initial – D – because it sounds good. So I became Jack D Mclean.
What’s the best thing about writing and getting published?
Praise and money.
What’s the worst?
Criticism and poverty.
Who do you read and enjoy?
So much! I tend to like certain books rather than think in terms of authors. Here’s a list (not comprehensive) of my favourite books:
It Happened in Boston by Russel H Greenan
The Watcher by Charles McLean
My Life as a Fake by Peter Carey
The Farm by Tom Rob Smith
Days Without End by Sebastian Barry
Sometimes I lie by Alice Feeney
The Killer Inside Me by Jim Thompson
One Lost Summer by Richard Godwin
A Case of Noir by Paul Brazill
Last 5 books you’ve read?
The Blind Rooster by Preston Lang
One Little Mistake by Emma Curtis
White Lies by Lucy Dawson
Last Year’s Man by Paul Brazill
Confessions by Kinae Minato
Is there one all-time favourite book you wished you had written?
It would be either It Happened in Boston by Russel H Greenan or The Watcher by Charles McLean. Unfortunately neither of them were bestsellers, so I might have to change my choice to a Harry Potter book or Fifty Shades of Gray!
Favourite activity when not working?
Drinking and shooting the breeze with friends.
Last film that rocked you?
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
Any must watch TV in the Strange/McLean household?
These are a few things me and the Mrs have enjoyed in recent years:
Line of Duty
The Handmaid’s Tale
Here’s one from way back:
Edge of Darkness
In a couple of years’ time, where do you hope to be with the writing?
Where I am now but with a considerably improved bank balance.
Many thank to Jack for his time.....
You can catch up with him at the following haunts...
Here's a link for Confessions of an English Psychopath if you're that way inclined
Here's a link for Confessions of an English Psychopath if you're that way inclined
Great stuff. Thanks for the mentons.ReplyDelete
It was him not me!Delete
Thanks, both - very interesting! I like the idea of setting the moral compass before writing. It's a good way to go about writing the difficult things...ReplyDelete
Agreed Margot. I'm glad you enjoyed the piece.Delete
Interesting -- many thanks to both. I may have to invest in Thatchenstein.ReplyDelete
Maggie reincarnated! A scary thought....Delete
Still most interested in Confessions of an English Psychopath. Nice interview, as usual.ReplyDelete
I think you might like COAEP. A lot of the action is off page and under-stated, but still very effective.Delete