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Tuesday, 1 March 2011

Moronic teachers, the police state, Pontypridd and Jack the Ripper - Gary Dobbs Interview

The following interview was originally published in three parts on the excellent, Mack Captures Crime blog. It's the place to go to keep informed on all the happenings in the crime field - I very much enjoyed this interview and thought it would be cool to repost the whole thing on the Archive:

Please enjoy and thanks to Mack Lundy for the great interview

Gary Martin Dobbs is a Welshman living in Pontypridd, Wales, who writes novels set in the American west, who has appeared in Doctor Who, and who has just published an ebook that links Buffalo Bill Cody's Wild West Show and Jack the Ripper. Tell me this isn't someone you would like to know a bit more about. Gary graciously responded to my questions which appeared in his inbox whenever a thought struck me.

My interview questions focus primarily on Gary's ebook, A Policeman's Lot, which I reviewed here.

1) Your first two books are westerns (The Tarnished Star and Arkansas Smith. A Policeman's Lot has a western feel with Buffalo Bill's Wild Show figuring prominently. How does a Welsh boy like yourself come to be interested in the American west?

Gary - It all stems from my grandfather who was actually named Jack Martin - I think most men of his generation were weaned on stories of the Wild West, much of which was still there when he was born. I spent my childhood watching every western that was on television and reading my grandfather's western novels once he had finished with them. But I'm also very much an outdoors person and am not comfortable in big cities - give me the wide open spaces anyday and the western genre provides all that. I also don't much like the modern world and I think the western hero is someone who survives by his own skill and doesn't look to the state for support. Freedom and liberty are also very important to me and those values form the backbone of the western genre. It's just a pity they are being eroded in the modern world.

2) A Policeman's Lot is set in 1904 and Pontypridd, Wales is developing into an urban center but to me it still had a frontier feel about it. Was that a characteristic of Pontypridd at that the time? And how is Prontypridd pronounced?

Gary - Firstly I knew I would have to write about a historical police officer - before the days of DNA testing and offender profiling. I think the modern police have lost the respect we once held for them and that's mostly their own fault, over here in the UK they are harvesting DNA for the flimsiest of reasons and hoping the tests will turn up past crimes. Of course for the most part they don't and they end up with another innocent person on their database but that doesn't matter to them. The modern police are creating a culture of "us and them" and they will regret this in the end. In the UK we have a large number of civilian police officers, as far as I can see these are folk with a uniform fetish, and this gives the impression that there are more police about than there actually are. A couple of years ago two of these plastic bobbies, as we call them, failed to intervene when a child was drowning because they hadn't been trained to go into the water. No I could never write about modern policing.

Which leads me to Parade - the era interests me greatly and of course having Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show visiting was a major part of the plot so that fact along dictated the time. And Pontypridd was very much a frontier town in those days - situated beneath two valleys, the Rhondda and Cynon it was a busy town with a thriving and changing population. I love this town and aimed for it to almost become another character in A Policeman's Lot - I would love to do for Pontypridd what Colin Dexter did for Oxford and Raymond Chandler did for LA.

And Pontypridd is pronounced - Ponty - pri - th.

3) Frank Parade is a police inspector in his mid-thirties. Would that have been young for that position?

Gary - By modern stands Parade would probably be too young for the rank, an inspector would also not be in uniform. But in 1904 the regional forces were very much in their infancy and Parade's army service would have seem him easily attain that rank at such a young age.

4)A Policeman's Lot has three themes: The life of a policeman in South Wales around the turn of the century; Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show; and the Jack the Ripper solution. Was one of them the starting point?

Gary - Buffalo Bill was but initially Jack the Ripper wasn't a factor and the novel was concerned with a more run of the mill series of murders, but shortly after starting the book I dreamt the entire Ripper plot. I woke up one morning and it was fully formed in my head and when I started checking the facts I found that the theory in the book made perfect sense.

5) Related to question 4, and without revealing any spoilers, how did you happen upon the Jack the Ripper connection?

Gary - There are many people who have devoted their lives to the Ripper case - Ripperologists they call themselves, and no doubt many will rubbish my book. But I say prove otherwise. The case had always interested me and I've always felt the key is in the last murder. In fact I find it hard to understand why that murder was even considered a Ripper killing. The M-O was different to the other killings and the mutilation was horrendous, almost as if someone was trying to hide the identity of the victim. Who and why, I asked myself and found that this new theory of mine, which as far as I know is quite unique, makes perfect sense. Have I come up with an answer to the crimes? Well it makes more sense than the popular Royal Family theory which can be so easily disproved. I mean when you consider the fact that there were actually sightings of the final so called victim after she was dead, then the premise of the novel doesn't seem so fantastic.

6) Are there western and mystery/crime writers that influenced you?

Gary - Louis L'amour is a massive influence, as is Elmer Kelton and Elmore Leonard. I also idolise British western writer George Gilman, AKA Terry Harknet who wrote the hugely popular Edge series. Many of the writers publishing with the UK's Black Horse house, a publisher who also carry my Jack Martin westerns, are superb and are keeping the genre alive over here in the UK. I can't name any of these guys for fear of leaving anyone out. I think the perfect western would have the characterisation of Elmer Kelton, the feel of Louis L'amour and the pace of George G. Gilman - I hope to one day write that book.

Crime is another favourite genre and I love the old American hardboiled stuff - Raymond Chandler and Mickey Spillane may seem widely differing writers but I love them both. And I recently read The Postman always rings twice by James Cain for the first time and was blown away. Richard Stark is another writer I love for his tough prose style and I think Parker is an awesome creation. Of the Brit crime writers - Ruth Rendell is someone who I love for her plotting and characters, and Ian Rankin created a modern classic with his Rebus series. Peter Robinson's excellent Banks series is also a huge influence. But overall I think I prefer American crime writing and would love to master the art of writing UK crime with the pace and style of American novels. But I think that I am influenced in some small way by everything I read, maybe all writers are. Which proves the adage that the most important thing one needs to become a writer is a voracious appetite for reading.

7) Will we see more of Frank Parade? This is a direct solicitation by the way, he's an excellent character who can be taken far.

Gary - Parade will return - at the moment I am working on a second Arkansas Smith novel and together with the forthcoming Ballad of Delta Rose I will be two westerns in hand. So I plan to take a good year over the next Parade book as the plot is pretty complex. They will all be back, though - Davies, Oakdale and Sweaty Betty. I can't promise Buffalo Bill or Jack the Ripper next time out, though.

8) You write historical fiction and A Policeman's Lot excels in giving the reader a feel for what the time and place would have been like. How do you go about researching your books?

Gary - I thank you for that - making Ponty, as we locals call it, seem real was very important to me. I wanted in some way to recreate the town as it once was as a kind of tribute to the hard-working people who lived and died there. Much of the research was done at the local library but Ponty has a great museum, the staff of which were very helpful. And if you look hard enough the history is still there to be seen. I'm always talking to older people and they are great at providing information and little snippets of colour about a way of life that is sadly gone.

9) The spelling and some phrasing have been Americanized, or as you would have written, Americanised. Do you think this makes the A Policeman's Lot more accessible to Americans?

Gary - Personally I think the book should have stuck with the British version, it is after all a Brit set crime novel. However I understand and respect my publisher's decision - we are after all two cultures divided by a common language. And besides I think American spelling is more logical, it's certainly more phonetic. I mean jail and gaol. But the English language is a beautiful living thing that is always adapting. On the differences between UK and US punctuation - this is a pain in the butt and I don't understand why it is so. We should adopt a common system.

10)A Policeman's Lot was published in ebook format. What do you think about ebooks and their effect on publishing.

Gary - I think that eBooks will change the way we read. And I also see that as the market stabilises they provide a great way to bring long out of print mid-range fiction back into print. More and more libraries over here in the UK are starting to offer eBooks and even the Luddites out there are having to admit that there is a great sea change coming. I'm pleased that A Policeman's Lot can be read on so many different devices - it looks great on an iPhone for instance. And although it is still early days for the medium I think it is about to explode into the mainstream and sooner rather than later.

11) I learned about A Policeman's Lot through your blog, The Tainted Archive. You are also on Facebook and Twitter. Do you think that social media is changing how books are publicized and the author's role in publicity? If so, how do the demands to promote your books affect your writing?

Gary - These days I do believe the author's own publicity is paramount and social networking and blogs are a great way of doing this. Of course The Tainted Archive exists largely to publicise my own books but if I simply wrote about my own stuff readers would turn away, which is why I try and make the Archive into an interesting online magazine that people will want to read and keep reading. I put a lot of work into maintaining the site - themed weekends, special initiative etc and posting whatever news I think will interest my readers. I enjoy the Archive and am proud of its standing in the blogosphere. I will, of course, continue to push my own books but others too. And as for the demand of the Archive affecting my writing - I think it does but in a good way. I look at the Archive as a work in progress and I sometimes rush posts to get them out there, not worrying too much about the odd mistake. A blog does not have to be perfectly grammatical - it's a great way though to develop discipline. For instance today I've just returned from twelve hours on set and I intend to place up a few posts later and that's besides the other work I have to do - I guess I'm a workaholic and am never happier than when grafting. Something that me and Frank Parade have in common.

11) I can't leave this interview without asking about your acting. I'm a bit of a Whovian and am envious that you were in the presence of the Doctor, Martha Jones, the Daleks, and you had your photo taken in the Tardis! Tell us about you as a performer.
Wouldn't he make a cool Doctor?

Gary - I've always been interested in acting and any kind of performing - I've done a good amount of stand up comedy and that led to appearing as an extra in TV and film in order to raise some extra cash which is always handy. And I'm always going for any auditions I hear about - often I'm just a bit of the background but sometimes I get the odd line or a piece of action. Doctor Who was great - this was the two part Daleks in Manhattan episode with David Tennant as the timelord. Can't praise him enough - in terms of performance or as a person. It was also great facing off against the iconic monsters. Torchwood was a bizarre experience - I actually did three episodes of that series and enjoyed every minute of it, well apart from filming in the freezing cold and rain all night.  The SF/Fantasy shows are great fun to work on but it is hard work, long days and much discomfort. 

12). Is there anything you would like to tell us about yourself, personal or how you go about writing?

Gary - I grew up in the seventies and had no schooling to talk about - everything I learned I learned from reading. Incidentally my mother taught me to read, I think the school gave up on me. And ever since I started reading I have also been writing, it's something I have to do. I was a solitary child and lived much of my life within my imagination - it's not something I can switch off. I write simply because I have to write. And besides the fact that I write at all is quite remarkable given that my teachers were morons and too busy trying to ram algebra down my throat instead of encouraging creative growth.


old guy rambling said...

Nice interview, good read. There may be too much truth in the last comment, “teachers were morons and too busy trying to ram algebra down my throat instead of encouraging creative growth.” As a long time teacher I can tell you this has not changed much. More and more government mandates take away more and more creativity. We tried to teach kids to think and now are compared to countries that still use much more rote memorization, off we will go in that direction. Whatever someone else does seems to be always better, in the eyes of the government, when it comes to education. Sad but we must keep ramming down the algebra—how could anyone write a good story without it?
41 years in front of the class.

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