Nigel Bird’s latest release is In Loco Parentis, the dark story of a primary school teacher whose life unravels quickly. Bird’s been part of the crime fiction community for years and works with All Due Respect as a consulting editor.
All Due Respect: One thing that’s always struck me about your writing is how real your characters are. Sure, it’s a cliche but it’s applicable in your case. There’s no better example of this than (In Loco Parentis protgaonist) Joe Campion, who somehow is believable as both a caring teacher of small children and a cold-blooded murderer. How do you go about crafting characters?
Nigel Bird: I’m going to take that as a big compliment and thank you. It’s something I’ve been told a lot and it always makes me feel good.
My problem is that I’m not usually able to explain it. In Joe Campion’s case, it’s a little easier. I’d been teaching for over twenty years when I wrote In Loco Parentis and getting insights into the way he might feel about the weight of responsibility a teacher shoulders and the pressures the job entails was linked to feelings I’d had throughout my career. I was also able to take experiences from school life and remember my reactions to them because responses to extreme situations never really go away. The elements of difference relate to how things play out. I’d turn to drink and drugs to cope with my anger when systems failed the children in my care, whereas Joe takes everything a step further and sets about finding his own brand of justice. There are many joys and wonderful moments in teaching, but I’m not sure people appreciate the horrors that professionals have to encounter on a fairly regular basis. I’d like to tip my hat to my colleagues. It’s not an easy job, whichever way you slice it.
I think that my characters are crafted through empathy. They become real to me and I get inside their skin while I’m writing. There are some advantages to that and there are also some dangers; by plugging into your own emotions, you can sometimes blow a fuse or take the lid off internal spaces that would be better left undisturbed. The empathy side may come from aspects of my teaching. Since 2001, I’ve been working to support children who have significant barriers to their learning and part of my role is to try and find solutions to those problems. The way I think I do that is by trying to experience a child’s reactions to their barriers. I work by feeling it out as much as by thinking about it. I hope I’ve made a difference to them by doing so and hope that my writing of characters has also benefited from it.
ADR: Who are you reading right now? Any writers we might not know about who you’d recommend?
NB: The next five books I intend to read (though, who knows?) will be:
The Blonde by Duane Swierczynski. I’ve read the opening and it’s a cracker. There are lessons to be learned here about how to grab attention and how to keep it and I’m looking forward to learning them as I go.
King’s Ransom by Ed McBain. I made it my mission to read through the 87th Precinct books in order and this is my next step along the way. I wish I’d started from the beginning in the first place. I love the playful points of view, the random addressing of the reader, the characters and humour. Above all, he always keeps me interested.
The Gallows Pole by Benjamin Myers. Ben was awarded the Walter Scott Prize for this one and I’m sure it’s deserved. He’s a powerful force in writing. This one is based on historical fact. I expect it to be dense, dark and unsettling.
Solitude Creek by Jeffrey Deaver. I’ve no idea about this one. A good friend of mine gave me the copy when I was in Hamburg in case I ran out of reading material on my holiday. Who knows?
The Winter of Frankie Machine by Don Winslow. The more I read Don’s work, the more I want to read.
ADR: I discovered your work through short stories almost a decade ago when Dirty Old Town blew the lid off the crime fiction scene. Do you still write short stories and flash?
NB: I love the way you phrase this one. It takes me back to very happy times as a writer.
For the last five years, I’ve been writing novels. The unfortunate thing for me is that my brain capacity is so limited that when I’m working on longer pieces all of my mental and emotional energy is bound up and there’s nothing left for anything else.
What I think I’ve come to realise is that writing novels doesn’t come naturally to me. It takes a lot of effort and there are elements of building stories that I find difficult.
I’m currently writing a short series of books inspired by McBain’s 87th series and am enjoying the process. When I finish them, I may feel inspired enough or so deeply immersed in them that I want to continue. What I think is more likely is that I return to writing short fiction for a while. I like the idea of collecting ideas and firing them off in quick bursts. The short story and flash fiction forms are probably where I get the most pleasure from writing and where my weaknesses are less exposed, so I’m looking forward to that period in life very much.
ADR: In the last year, you’ve done a lot of work for All Due Respect reading submissions and editing manuscripts. How has being on the other side of the publishing equation changed how you approach writing and reading?
NB: You’re right to point out that there are big differences between the processes of writing and of editing. It’s been a challenge to adapt from one to the other and I hope I’ve managed to pull it off.
The first element of this is the understanding that All Due Respect has high standards and that the work it puts out has a very particular quality. When reading the submissions, that has offered a useful filter through which to help narrow the parameters.
It’s true to say that I’ve read some fine manuscripts because of my involvement. That proved to be a strong reminder of how much great fiction there is out there and how important the small independents are to giving these authors a voice. It provided a gentle nudge, just in case I needed one, to make sure that I include new names in my diet of fiction and that I continue to support the smaller publishers with my purchases along the way.
I’ve learned something of the acceptance and rejection process and hope that will stand me in good stead as a submitting author in the future. There’s nothing personal about a decision. Books and stories aren’t judged on the flesh and blood that created them, simply on the black and white marks on the page. When I next get a rejection, I hope I’ll be able to remember that. And in order to try and avoid those rejections, I’ll bear in mind the lesson learned about how little time you have to make an impression. The advice that’s out there for submissions to agents and publishers always tells you how sharp your writing needs to be, but I’m not sure it’s really hit home before. There’s no room for clumsy sentences, over-writing, excessive description, poor spelling, silly dedications, overblown synopses and the like. Something has to grab the virgin reader from the off. It doesn’t have to involve a burst of explosive action or a dramatic entry, but it does need to shake by the throat and promise to take you somewhere special within a very short space of time. I think that I realised how much I need the voice and tone to feel right as much as anything – get that right and there’s every chance my attention will be caught.
That had a direct impact on the novel I’m working on just now. I had a big preamble chapter that I was really proud of as the opening. I took a lot of time shaping and reworking it until I thought it was spot on and then became aware that it was chapter two that would be the point at which the reader would be engaged. I had to switch things around and alter the shape again, but I’m glad I caught it early and feel that it’s the work with All Due Respect that helped me see there was a problem at all. For that, I’m very grateful.
But catching attention isn’t enough in itself. Maintaining it is the key. That’s something I think I need to get better at as a writer. Linking chapters in a way that keeps a reader interested isn’t something that comes easily to me for some reason and I’m hoping that by keeping that at the forefront of my mind as I work, I’ll manage to iron out some of my weaknesses in that respect.
I’ve become more critical as a reader at the nuts and bolts level, which can be irritating at times. I find sentences I don’t like. See them improving by shifting a few words around or cutting a clause or something. Bizarrely, much as I love books, I don’t find the process of reading to be an easy one and anything that gets in the way of the flow on top of my brain’s own snagging is something that I’d rather avoid. It might be a bummer as a reader, but I think it’s going to help me when it comes to putting words onto the page. I hope I’m finding it easier to spot the things that create friction and slow things down. I’m weeding out problems at an earlier stage, just like with the reworking of the opening I mentioned. Before I write, I re-read the work from the previous session and tidy it up as well as I can. It’s taking me longer on the one hand, but will speed me up in the long-term.
The most important thing for me is that I’ve enjoyed my involvement to date and hope that it’ll continue for a good while to come.