Thursday 14 July 2011

Ray Banks interview: Gun

Gun by Ray Banks

Ray Banks has worked as a wedding singer, double-glazing salesman, croupier, dole monkey, and various degrees of disgruntled temp. He currently lives in Edinburgh with his perfect wife and a fat, black cat named after a dead country singer, where he’s been known to fall into fits of curmudgeonly behaviour that normally involve creative swearing and lewd gestures.

Can you sum up Gun in no more than 25 words?

Richie’s just out of the YOI and charged with picking up a converted air pistol for a one-legged drug dealer. He gets robbed. Drama ensues.

How much difference does an editor make?

An editor makes the manuscript a book. I’ve been lucky enough to work with some astounding editors over the years, and I’ve learned from all of them. For Gun, my editor was David Belbin, who’s an exceptional author, and who went through the novella with a fine-toothed comb and eradicated as many clichés (like “fine-toothed comb”) as he could find, and ultimately made the whole thing publishable.

How much difference does a good cover make?

All the difference in the world, especially when you’re talking about eBooks. They’re not tactile sales – all people have to go on are the cover and the sample, and they’re not going to bother with the sample if the cover looks like your Nan’s first go at Photoshop. There are some absolutely horrific covers out there, and so in some perverse way people think it’s okay to half-arse it – well, that book’s selling well and that cover’s terrible, so I don’t need to bother. But, no, you can’t half-arse anything with eBooks, which is why I got  JT Lindroos to design my cover. The man’s a legend, and easily one of the smartest people I’ve worked with.

How important is a book's central character?

Well, I read for character and voice, so an empathetic human being as a central character is essential. Even more so if it’s a first-person narrative (which I tend to favour myself), because you’re hanging the whole story on that viewpoint.

What's the best piece of craft advice you've been given?

The best dialogue doesn’t have tags, not even “said”. Give us an action or a look if you need to tell us who’s speaking. James M. Cain’s a great teacher in that respect. Also, most books start way too early in the story and take too long with the background. Another lesson from Cain: by the end of the first chapters in his major novels, his main cast are established and you’re already well into the story. There you go, a twofer. You're welcome.

What's the best piece of business advice you've been given?

Concentrate on what you can control. Everything else is a lottery.

What are your views on eBook pricing?

The cheaper, the better. It costs a damn sight less to produce an eBook than it does music, games or movies, so why can’t we use that to our advantage? There’s absolutely no reason why eBooks can’t be as popular as the original pulp paperbacks. Keep it cheap, and get people reading more.

From an artistic rather than financial perspective, what book do you wish you had written?

Either Last Exit to Brooklyn by Hubert Selby Jr. or The Easter Parade by Richard Yates.

What's the best collection of short stories you've read?

Richard Yates again - Eleven Kinds of Loneliness.

Your Callum Innes quartet is quite something. Rarely has the British PI been seen in such a realistic and convincing light. Can you tell us a little about the series?

You’re a very kind and handsome man for saying so. The series follows an ex-con self-styled private investigator in Manchester who starts and ends his career working for the same gang lord, and in between becomes a babysitter for a boxing prodigy, a local hero, and a stroke victim. The impetus behind them was my love of PI fiction and my dissatisfaction with British PI fiction. It always seemed to be a transplanted American archetype and while American PI writers were doing new things with that archetype, us Brits seemed content to churn out the same Chandler-lite all the time. So I wanted to do a proper British take on the PI, and mess with a few tropes along the way, most notably the whole quick-healing PI thing. Unfortunately, once I decided that, I knew it wouldn’t be a long-running series. But they were all well-reviewed, and people seemed to like ‘em, so I’m happy enough. Polygon published them all over here, and the last of the series Beast of Burden is being published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in August.

Christa Faust recently described you on this very blog as her favourite living author. One of the things I think you have in common is that you both bring an emotional integrity to your writing that's really quite exceptional. Is that something you're aware of, that you're constantly striving for, or is it natural?

I read that, yeah. I can only assume she lost a bet or something. But you’re absolutely right about the emotional integrity in her writing. I think it has a tendency to be overlooked because the marketing and plots point to a pulpier book, but I challenge anyone to find another author who can pack that much humanity and inferred history into their protagonist and still keep the story moving.

If we have that in common, it’s because we both share a passion for first-person narrative. I’ve always thought that what makes a story interesting is the person telling it, because a storyteller’s truth is entirely subjective. We’re being told something through a warped lens of delusion, vanity and prejudice, not to mention whatever unspoken experience that’s brought the narrator to this point. First-person narratives also give you a natural inside view of someone else’s world. In third-person, any information like that always feels like exposition. At the heart of it - for me, anyway - is a preference for people over plot and a reluctance to cast anyone in predetermined moral roles. I mean, that’s an ongoing challenge, but it’s one that’s always been a key part of my writing. So I suppose it’s both natural and something I strive for?

GUN is a novella. How did your approach to writing it differ from writing a novel and which do you prefer writing?

My approach was exactly the same - outline the sucker, draft it, retro-outline it, draft it again and repeat as necessary until I’ve got something that feels whole. The differences were the length (which equated to about a third of a short novel, so it was easy to find a natural arc), the time it took to write (about two weeks) and the fact that I was commissioned to write it. Normally I’m writing on spec. It was fun, so much so I did another called California, but unless the idea’s right, I think they can feel like padded short stories. Ultimately, my preference is to write short novels, something along the lines of 50-60k, because those are what I love to read.

Are you much of an eBook reader?

If you’d asked me this last year, you’d have suffered a contemptuous snort and I would’ve had my manservant show you the door. But then, a lot can change in a year. We had to let the staff go, for one. We moved to a much smaller place, for another. And my missus got me a Kindle for Christmas, which ended up being one of my favourite things ever and changed the way I thought about books. I still buy honest-to-God book-type books, but they’re hardbacks, ideally first editions, and they’re by authors I will always come back to. Everything else goes on the Kindle, and those books are bought purely for the content. So I still have the whole book fetish thing, but it’s much more controlled. I’ve also found that I’m more willing to take a chance on new authors, whether that be through samples on Amazon, or manuscripts that I’ve been asked to blurb.

Ian Rankin recently mentioned that "novellas and the like may be the Kindle's strength." How do you see the future for shorter works?

I think Rankin’s absolutely correct. The Kindle’s much better suited to novellas and short novels than those obese thrillers you see weighing down the shelves in airports, because when you read an eBook, you become immediately aware of padding. So I think it’ll be a perfect venue for shorter works, as long as authors clearly state what kind of work it is - people will still get crabby if they get a short story when they thought they were buying a novel, no matter what the price.

Just before GUN went on sale, you gave away copies to anyone who asked. What's your thinking behind that?

I figured that if you were following me on Twitter, you probably deserved some kind of reward, so I decided to give away copies of Gun for a week to anyone who could be bothered emailing or tweeting me. As it turned out, there were plenty of people who caught it on the retweets and bagged themselves a freebie, too. The upshot of the whole enterprise is that I now have a few more followers on Twitter and I’ve been in contact with a load of people who hadn't read my work before, so it’s been completely worthwhile. In fact, the only downside was that it ate right into my nightly writing time, so I might have to shorten the time frame a little next time.

You once mentioned that part of the problem with ebook piracy was in the nomenclature. Would you care to elaborate?

Alright, but don't say I didn't warn you. This is a pretty emotive subject.

First off, yes, using a pejorative term like "piracy" is problematic because it infers criminality, and that automatically limits discussion. It's also an inaccurate term when it's used to describe peer-to-peer networks. Piracy - as I understand it, anyway - is the manufacture and sale without permission of works in copyright. P2P networks offer copies, yes, but they're not actively selling them. It's a small difference, but an important one. It means it's inaccurate to equate P2P "pirates" with the dodgy blokes down the market who'll do you a copy of Avatar for a fiver. If anything, P2P is meeting a demand, and they're meeting it for free. And I think it'd be prudent to investigate further.

As I see it, the biggest and most pressing problem for any new author – especially a debut novelist – is obscurity, especially for print authors. The moment you're published, that's you on that slippery slope. Shelf space is limited, and turnover is rapid. Bookstores, despite their best efforts, have been forced into myopic buying habits and supermarkets aren't interested in selling anything that doesn't already have a massive audience. So unless you're an off-the-bat bestseller, people aren't going to be able to find your book very easily and there, as the saying goes, is the rub. We live in a culture of convenience, where "easy" trumps even "free". Unfortunately that culture also dictates that if your book isn't immediately available, then people probably aren't going to buy it in numbers that would support a career. And if it isn't in people's hands, then word of mouth is a tough thing to build, and word of mouth is about the only truly effective sales tool there is.

I think eBooks have gone some way to ameliorate the situation. We’re not dealing with physical print runs, there are no delivery charges or waiting times. I reckon cross-platform reading devices and conversion software like Calibre will render the so-called format wars redundant, too. Remember, this is just converting one file type to another, like mp3 to FLAC, not like Blu-Ray to HD-DVD. Currently, the only things stopping people from buying eBooks are the DRM (which actively punishes you for buying legally) and relative scarcity of e-readers. The former can be stripped with a Python script, and I have a feeling the latter will be a vital component of every iPad tablet PC in the future. So let’s just say that eBooks are here to stay, and that without effective anti-piracy measures, we’re likely to see an infinite number of books stripped of their copy protection that can be distributed in bulk to anywhere with an internet connection and the right (free) software. A waking nightmare, yes?

Not at all, and this is my point. Authors should be pleased they’re being pirated. I know I was. Over the last twenty years or so, branding has shifted from publisher to author, so when someone illegally downloads and enjoys your book, they’re going to remember you, not your publisher. Plus, it means there’s a demand for your books not currently being met. As for publishers, especially those spending bucketloads of money to play Canute, why can’t they harness the potential of the torrent to their own ends? After all, these are people who like to read so much, they’re willing to go to that extra length to get free copies. That’s word of mouth right there, and I’d much rather see a thousand copies of my book go for free to people who wanted it than see another ARC show up on eBay. Also, P2P networks still represent a no-maintenance, utterly free and worldwide channel of distribution. Most companies would kill for that kind of reach with that little overhead.

What about losing sales? Well, apart from the fact that there’s no guarantee that your illegal downloader would’ve bought your book, the book industry has form for selling in bulk at deep discount. And I think both publishers and authors - who rarely make a living from their royalties anyway - need to think about balancing those losses with the prospect of a much larger readership. P2P has the potential to bring a short-term, no-win game back to the long-term, and allow authors to find the kind of large and dedicated readership they deserve, and with publishers exploiting those distribution networks, they could quite easily turn "piracy" into cost-effective marketing.

Finally, do you have any other projects on the go?

Up to me ears, I am. Dead Money is currently doing the rounds at the moment - that's a page-one rewrite of my debut novel The Big Blind, and it's a far better book now than it ever was. I've also just sent the final third of Wolf Tickets to Needle, and I'm planning to put that out as an eBook if there's enough interest. As for work-in-progress, I'm currently writing a semi-sequel to Dead Money called Double Down - it's a casino robbery novel - and I've got some screenplays that need polishing. I'm also outlining two more novels, one of which may or may not be another Farrell and Cobb. So yeah, busy.

Gun by Ray Banks


  1. Great interview. The more I read about Ray Banks the more I like the guy. I'm waiting until the end of the year to finally read Wolf Tickets so I can read them all at once.

  2. My first Ray Banks was NO MORE HEROES; I knew there would be more, and now there is. Thanks to both of you for the tip and great interview.

  3. Great insight and a terrific author; Gun is another one for my Kindle download list.