Interview with Tess Makovesky, Author of Gravy Train

I recently spoke with Tess Makovesky, author of All Due Respect’s latest, Gravy Train, a raucous ride through Birmingham’s back streets with a cast of lowlife characters all clamoring for 80,0000 pounds.

All Due Respect: How did you first become involved in crime fiction?

Tess Makovesky: Pretty early if you include reading, since I came across a secret stash of crime classics (Agatha Christie, Ngaio Marsh, Dorothy L Sayers etc) in the bottom of my grandmother’s dressing table, and devoured the lot! 

After that, I discovered crime on TV and  loved all the old UK gems like Dr Finlay’s Case Book, Z Cars, and Softly Softly Task Force, followed by slicker but more violent 1980s contributions like The Sweeney and The Professionals, and lighter fare such as Ian Ogilvy’s version of The Saint.

All of that combined to inspire a love of crime fiction in general, and dark, gritty but at the same time humorous crime fiction in particular. And when I started writing, I naturally gravitated to the genre and style I enjoyed and was familiar with.

In terms of a writing ‘break’, you can probably thank Byker Books, an  independent UK crime publisher who specialised in what they called  ‘industrial strength fiction’ and published a series of anthologies of  short dark crime stories. I was lucky to have stories accepted in three of the six ‘Radgepacket’ books, and that opened a door for me into the world of indie crime publishing. After that I managed to get short stories in the likes of Shotgun Honey, Pulp Metal Magazine and Out of the Gutter Online, as well as various anthologies, and the rest is history…

ADR: Gravy Train’s narrative rotates between several different characters. Did you find this style of narration challenging? 

TM: If anything I find it easier than a straightforward, chronological narrative from a single character’s point of view. Because I specialise in short stories, I can build a longer work up in layers from a series of what are effectively short stories in their own right. Each has its own character(s), its own point of view, and in many cases finishes on a mild cliffhanger, just as a standalone story would. The only difference is that they’re all linked, and all develop the overall story arc in some way.

The only difficulty was in making it obvious which character each chapter was about without just throwing an ‘As you know, Bob’ (or Sandra, or Todd) into the first line. I tried to do this by changing the tone (and in some cases, even the style) of the narration to match the character. So for instance, Ball is quite ‘prissy’, Todd swears a lot (and I mean a lot!), and Sandra’s chapters were done in a pacey first person point of view which helped to define her as the main character.

My current work in progress is in a more conventional format, but I’m hoping to return to the multi-character approach in future works.

ADR: One of the aspects of Gravy Train that appealed to me right away was its focus on everyday characters–a bartender, low-level thieves, a criminal informant. Why write about these folks instead of secret agents and the fabulously wealthy? 

TM: There’s two main reasons for this, I think. The first is the old thing about writing what you know, and I don’t know all that many spies or billionaires! Which sounds flippant, but I wouldn’t be great at writing about characters like that and still keeping it real, or believable. 

And that’s very much the second reason. My stuff may seem a bit bonkers at times but it’s very much grounded in reality and I try to make sure that my characters are real people in their own way. Quite often they’re based on aspects of people I’ve actually met – shop assistants, passing acquaintances, former colleagues – and I understand them well enough to know how they’re likely to react in a given set of circumstances. So if someone threatens them, or splits up with them, or nicks a bag of money they’ve only just acquired, I’ve got a fair idea what they will do. And that makes the process of writing about them easier.

And then, of course, there’s the thought that if someone really was as wealthy as that they’d be able to buy their way out of trouble, which could make for a very short book…

ADR: Gravy Train has a wonderful sense of place and represents a specific British sub-culture well. Who are some other UK authors you’d recommend who capture particular parts of the country well?

TM: Ian Rankin has always done a great job of locating his books in Edinburgh, to the point where you can now go on tours of the landmarks he writes about. Likewise with Colin Dexter (the Inspector Morse series), who is superb at capturing the ‘town and gown’ culture of the university city of Oxford. 

One of my favourites is Peter May, who sets his books on the Hebridean island of Lewis, and describes not just the wild scenery but also the clash between traditional and modern ways of life. I also love Jay Stringer’s Sam Ireland series, which is set against the backdrop of Glasgow’s gangster culture and has a similar vein of dark humour as my own writing. 

Closer to home is something of a hero of mine – Joel Lane. Sadly, he passed away a few years ago, but his brilliant noir novels were set in some of Birmingham’s more bohemian suburbs – including Moseley, where I lived for many years and where Ballsy McBollockface runs his criminal empire from! Joel did a fantastic job of describing the arts and music culture, the venues, the ‘underground’ bars, the bourgeois surface but also the sleaze – and helped provide some of the inspiration behind ‘Gravy Train’.

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