Author John Carlo celebrated the publication of Click to Kill earlier this month, so we met in a cybercafe in cyberspace. While we enjoyed virtual snacks and an exchange of ideas, I tried to pin him down about his motivations, inspirations, and writing practice.
Over to you, John!
How did you start writing?
I’ve always written, from as far back as I can remember. Songs when I was a kid, and into my teens. Truly terrible poetry when I was a student. Various stillborn attempts at screenplays, teleplays and novels in my twenties and thirties. Fiction, mainly in the form of novels, ever since.
Did you always want to be a writer?
Even when I was in bands as a teenager (this was in Seattle, pre-Grunge) I was a lyricist. I knew that one day I would write longer works. Song lyrics weren’t always the best place to tell the stories I wanted to tell. That being said, I have the deepest respect for great lyricists, they really are the poets of our age.
If you could describe Click to Kill in one word what would it be?
What inspired you to write Click to Kill?
I live in London now, and I wanted to create something characteristically British. The Brits love an underdog, and they’re rebels at heart. From folk tales to Shakespeare to today’s works, most of their most famous heroes are really anti-heroes, and there’s a rich dystopic tradition. The contemporary interpretation of that was someone with modern powers – which would have to involve the digital world – but who was reluctant, sardonic, flawed and yet often invisibly moral. Someone who does wrong in order to do right. It’s not a uniquely British archetype, but it dwells deep in the national psyche.
Your hero, Rigby Goode, has the power to erase identities. Where did that idea come from?
I read an article in the newspaper about how difficult it’s become for people in law enforcement and intelligence to go undercover, because so much of our lives these days is in the public view. So, it struck me that there must be people in those organisations who are employed to go through and delete the digital footprints of individuals who need to disappear. Like any other technology, it wouldn’t take long before someone worked out how to use it criminally.
The team who do the identity erasing are called Toshers, is that a historical term?
Yes, it comes from Victorian London. Toshers were people – mainly children – who lived in the sewers. They collected copper coins that fell through street grates, or anything else of value. The material they collected was known as ‘tosh’, hence the expression ‘a load of tosh’, meaning items of dubious value.
The dark web is humanity’s new sewer, and this team dig around in digital effluent, so they are the modern toshers.
What has been the hardest part of Click to Kill to write?
This book has gone through many edits. None of it was hard to write, the difficult part was deciding what to leave out. The basic idea can lead off in many different directions – and in fact it did. I had to make hard choices about which direction the final manuscript would take.
Think of it like a movie where we had too many takes and too many scenes and too many characters. Ten times as much material ended up on the editing room floor as made the final cut.
Why did you choose Click to Kill as the title of your novel?
The title came to me about halfway through the writing, and I’ve been frustrated having to sit on it. I knew it was catchy and wanted to get it out there. It sums the book up really well.
We considered other titles, including ‘Tosher’. But fifty percent of thriller/mystery books today are bought as Ebooks, which means customers aren’t going to be spending hours browsing bookshops and reading back covers. The title needs to be immediate and do what it says on the tin.
What do you hope people take away from reading Click to Kill?
There are some very dark themes in this book, including paedophilia and alcoholism. Although it’s a thriller, there are also elements of the non-fiction genre known as ‘victim victory’. It’s about individuals overcoming both inner and outer demons. I hope that anyone reading is encouraged to believe that they can overcome whatever holds them back in their own lives.
Where and when do you tend to write?
I’m not (yet) a full-time writer. I have another career which includes a start-up tech business. I write a lot when I’m travelling to meetings. I use an app on my phone called ‘Notes’. I type ideas, passages, dialogue, sometimes whole chapters, into the Notes app. It automatically replicates on my computer. I then copy and paste the text into the evolving manuscript.
Other times I sit in my front room when everyone else is out. I also write late at night in bed. I try to be as flexible as possible and let the ideas come whenever they want to. My job is to catch them.
Who is your favourite author?
Too many to mention, but three who have had a big influence on me in the last few years are James Ellroy, Haruki Murakami, and Roberto Bolano.
Ellroy for me is the best novelist in the English language today. He’s elevated the crime genre to the status of fine literature. It’s inspiring because it means don’t be afraid of your genre, or constrained by it. Be proud. Make it as brilliant as you can. Don’t dumb it down, ever.
From Murakami I’ve learned a lot of technical skill. Handling time, for example, which can be difficult in thrillers. To create tension, you often have to go deep into a character’s experience of a particular moment in time. A scene taking place over thirty seconds of fictional time might be described over five pages. So then to switch gears after that scene and move forward, say, three months, can be difficult unless executed well. Murakami is a master of that kind of technical transition.
Bolano is all about characters. I’ve never had a problem coming up with plots, but sometimes they felt as if the stories were happening to the characters, rather than unfolding because of them. As a result, my characters sometimes felt wooden. Bolano goes deep into the inner values and subtleties of his characters, which makes them incredibly human.
Do you have a pet peeve when it comes to writing? Something you notice yourself doing or something you pick-up in other’s writing.
I notice convenience now all the time. Writers introducing circumstances in which characters have to react in certain ways, but which don’t stand up to scrutiny.
The other is putting dialogue in characters’ mouths that is really something the writer wants to say. It’s part of what I’ve learned from Bolano. If you want to make a philosophical point, for example, you need to devise a character for whom that point is important to them. You then have to construct a world where that character might legitimately reside. And so on. Simply having another character say something philosophical when the author feels like it is just lazy and sloppy.
Do you have a writer’s habit that helps you ‘get in the zone’?
When I was a student I used to work either in the library or the student union. Dead silence or chaos. Both work for me, but nothing in between.
What’s a piece of advice you can give to aspiring authors?
Keep returning to the basic tell/show conundrum. Don’t tell, show. Force yourself to make sure every word that appears in your fictional work emanates from a fictional source. Dramatize thine exposition, as Robert McKee says. It’s not the only rule of writing, but it is the most important one, especially for authors learning the craft.
Click to Kill can be purchased in paperback or ebook by clicking on the link below: