Strip till Dead by Mike Gerrard
Can you sum up your book in no more than 25 words?
Strip till Dead is a crime novel set in the world of London’s strippers. A novice stripper discovers inner strengths as she solves a murder.
What was your motivation for writing it?
From a personal point of view, I’ve been a travel writer for about 15-20 years now, and in that time I’ve written dozens of guidebooks, hundreds of newspaper and magazine pieces. I’ve won awards for my travel writing, so I know I can do it, and hopefully do it well. But there was no challenge there any more. I still love the travelling, but writing a guidebook isn’t a creative challenge. It’s a physical challenge, to get it all done, to format and to deadline, but any one of dozens of people could write any particular guidebook. I wanted to prove I could write something that only I could do - for better or worse. And the main story idea and the setting for Strip till Dead had been in my mind for several years, and I just knew one day I had to do something with them.
Who designed your cover?
Rob Kelly, an artist who lives in New Jersey. I knew that because I was self-publishing this book on Amazon, a good cover would be vital. I’d no idea where to start so I emailed a few people, including the guy who does the Rap Sheet, which I subscribe to. I don’t know him but thought he might know someone. He suggested Rob, and as soon as I saw the mock paperback covers on his website, I knew he was the right guy.
I saw the one he’d done for Harlot, and that was what I wanted. We agreed a fee, Rob read the book, and came up with a draft cover. I liked it and made a few suggestions, which Rob incorporated, and he was a real pleasure to work with. I knew a good cover was going to be vital, and that’s not a talent I’ve got, so I had to pay someone professional to do it.
How important is a good title?
I think titles, like the names of your characters, are vitally important. It has to be catchy without being gimmicky, it has to give a feel for the book and its genre, and it has to be original. So try doing all that in about three words. My working title was Stark Naked, but I knew I was never going to use that. It was too simple and blatant. As I was getting towards finishing the book - which went through several drafts - I sat down, compiled a list of possibilities, played around with them, came up at first with Strip till Midnight, which I still like, but I changed it to Strip till Dead as it definitely tells you someone dies.
What's your favourite part of the writing process?
It’s the point where your characters take over, and start talking to you. You just write down what they say and what they do. When you get to that stage it happens so fast in your head that it’s hard to keep up. It means your characters have come alive, and the story’s moving on. Sometimes they say or do things that you don’t expect, or you hadn’t planned, but if the characters are strong enough then you usually have to go with them. It’s a very exciting time in the writing process for me, but there’s a lot of hard slog before you get to that point. It’s like getting to the top of a hill on a bike, then you can freewheel down the other side - it’s exhilarating but you still have to stay in control.
What are your strengths and weaknesses as a writer?
One strength is dialogue, one weakness is plot. I am good at dialogue, I think I have an ear for the way people speak. I adapted three books into radio plays for the BBC and you have to be good at dialogue to do that. It helped me because I already had the plot and the characters from the books, but then you have to delve into the story, change it round sometimes in order to condense the action, otherwise you’d end up with a 7-hour play. Fortunately for me I think you can learn plot, but it’s harder to learn how to do dialogue. I must be getting somewhere because one of my Amazon reviewers said: ‘Gerrard plots his story well and carries it off with flair.’
What are you reading now?
I just started The Best American Mystery Stories 2008, which I bought in my local library’s second-hand bookshop for a dollar. It’s edited by George Pelecanos, one of my favourite crime writers, so I was pretty sure it would be worth a dollar. At the Harrogate Crime Writing Festival in 2009, when George Pelecanos was one of the headliners, he was the only author I queued up for, to get a book signed. I’m not that bothered about getting signed copies — but he was an exception. Dennis Lehane will be the exception this year.
The anthology’s got stories by Michael Connelly and James Lee Burke, and they’re both writers I really admire. I’m working on a short story myself at the moment, which will take the characters at the end of Strip till Dead and propel them towards the next novel, but I’ve hardly written any short stories. They just don’t come naturally to me, so I thought I’d read an anthology and try to learn from the masters.
From an artistic rather than financial perspective, what book do you wish you had written?
To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee. That’s such a fine, powerful, moving book. It must be marvellous to write something that touches so many people, that stands the test of time, that creates vivid characters, that says something important about the society you live in, and that is really original. On top of all that, you’ve got the intriguing mystery as to why Harper Lee never published another novel.
Strip till Dead by Mike Gerrard