An interview with Chris Ould, author of The Blood Strand

chrisouldPlease welcome Chris Ould to the blog! He kindly answered a few questions about his new book, The Blood Strand (out today!)
Will you tell us a bit about The Blood Strand and what inspired you to write it?

The Blood Strand is the first of a trilogy featuring Jan Reyna who was born in the Faroes but taken away by his mother at the age of three. After she committed suicide Reyna was adopted and raised in England where he is now a murder squad detective. He’s called back to the islands when his estranged father has a stroke and Reyna embarks on a quest to find out about his past and why his mother left the islands. Along the way, and as a consequence of his digging, he becomes involved with Faroese detective Hjalti Hentze, and is drawn into investigating a murder which may or may not have its roots in his family history.

In terms of inspiration for the books, I suppose that was really the Faroe Islands themselves. I’ve always been intrigued by islands – the fact that they’re cut off from the mainland, self-reliant and slightly otherworldly. I’d read about the Faroes a long time ago and from what little I knew about them they seemed somehow enigmatic and mysterious, so they stuck in my head as somewhere I’d like to explore. I didn’t do anything about it until three years ago when I was working on an idea for a crime novel – something which used family history as a starting point for the case, but also took place in an isolated community. I started to think about using an island setting, remembered the Faroes and it pretty much went from there.

What kind of research did you do for the book, and what is your writing process like?

I suppose the first and most basic research was to actually go to the Faroes – it’s a hard life! – although when I first went out there I had no idea of just how important the place and the Faroese people would be to the end result. Spending more time there subsequently I’ve made friends and developed contacts which has been really rewarding. The Faroes are a very distinct culture and although they’re nominally part of the Danish commonwealth they have their own language and their attitudes are shaped by centuries of isolation and tradition. It meant that, for me, virtually everything I saw and heard in the islands was different to my previous experience: sometimes in very subtle ways, sometimes very obviously.

I knew from the start that writing about the Faroes was going to be a challenge because of the difference in cultures. I’ve written a lot of British crime drama so I have a fairly good understanding of UK police procedure, but the Faroes operate under the Danish legal code, which is quite different. I was very lucky to meet and spend a lot of time with police officers in the islands. They’ve all been fantastic and very patient with me, answering questions from the basic to the very esoteric. I’m not sure what they make of the whole project but they’ve been pretty laid back about the fact that the books raise the murder rate in the islands by a significant factor – fictionally, of course.

In terms of the process of writing, doing research is probably the best bit because you’re free to follow your instincts or any interesting leads that come up. After that – when you’ve got all the information together – the process of writing is more like any job of work: you only get results if you put in the time. For me the key thing is to know where the story is going and work out the plot backwards from the end. I always plan the books in detail before I start writing, so I pretty much know what will be in each section or chapter. Doing it that way also means that I don’t often start the day looking at a blank screen and thinking so what the hell am I going to do now? I aim to write a thousand words a day every day – twice that if it’s going well – until the first draft is finished. Then I put it away for a couple of weeks and think about something else before going back and trying to sort out all the potholes and problems I ignored first time around.

Have you always wanted to be a writer? Will you tell us more about yourself and your background?

It’s a funny ambition, to want to be a professional fabricator of fictions, but the answer is – more or less – yes: writing was the only thing that was consistently there. In my teens and early twenties I had a lot of unskilled manual jobs because I wasn’t qualified for anything else. I always wrote, though, and after bashing out about a dozen atrociously bad novels I must finally have learned enough to write a couple which weren’t so bad because they were published.

Then, long story short, I conned my way into writing for TV. The first half hour script I wrote paid more than both novels, so it was an easy decision to stop writing books and follow the money. I worked on several different series over the years, but the one I liked most and worked on longest was a British cop show called The Bill. They paid real attention to detail and correct police procedure was paramount, so I got to know a lot of serving and retired coppers, as well as a few villains. By the time The Bill ended I’d already started to think about writing novels again, but I wasn’t quite sure what sort of thing to do, then my wife said: You’re a crime writer; you should write crime novels. So I did. As a genre I think it’s what suits my writing best. I have a dark and devious mind, but I hide it well!

What’s one of the first things that you can remember writing?

An illustrated book about dinosaurs. I was five and I distinctly remember being really pleased that by filling four pages – plus covers – I’d written a “real” book! I think it was probably a little short on plot, though.

Why suspense? What do you enjoy the most about reading, and writing, in the genre?

The great thing about crime or suspense as a genre – as a writer or reader – is that you’re immediately introduced to characters in crisis. The crime creates crisis, which gives you drama. It puts people under pressure and reveals things about their nature that we might not have suspected before. We also have the great opportunity to empathise with the good guy of the piece – the detective – and get a look at a world which we wouldn’t ordinarily be able to see. I think that behind-the-scenes element – seeing the coppers or a detective at work – is a great part of the appeal. As a writer, crime stories give me chance to explore those same ideas: what happens to someone when their world is shattered; why would this person credibly kill that person? If it’s a puzzle for the reader it’s an even bigger one for the writer when you’re trying to figure out how to tell the story without cheating or giving away the ending. I like the challenge of making it work.

What authors have influenced you the most?

Really, it’s just too hard to be definitive: you learn something from everyone you read, even if it’s just not to do something the way they did. But if you forced me to answer I’d say Richard Brautigan for brevity and imagination; John Le Carré for creating a world and atmosphere, and Raymond Chandler for turning me on to crime novels in the first place. I don’t claim to write like any of them, but they can remind me of why I do it.

If you could experience one book again for the first time, which one would it be?

Ingenious Pain by Andrew Miller. I loved it the first time around and didn’t want to reach the end. Now I’m afraid to re-read it in case I don’t connect with it in the same way. It would be great to read it again after a memory wipe!

What are you currently reading?

The Gardener From Ochakov by Andrey Kurkov. It’s something of a fable and has magical realism at its heart. I have to read something completely different to crime when I’m in the process of writing, which I am now, so I had to put aside The Necessary Death Of Lewis Winter by Malcolm Mackay. I’m very much looking forward to going back to it from the start when I finish writing.

What’s next for you? Is there anything else you’d like to share?

My name is Chris and I like to drink gin!

Oh, you meant “share” in work terms. Well, I’m working on a different crime novel, but I’m saying no more. My agent hates me because I refuse to talk about ideas and work in progress before I’ve done at least one draft. But I like people to come to a story without any preconceptions or expectations. That said, I can reveal that book 2 of the Faroes series, The Killing Bay, is finished and will be out next year, and book 3, The Fire Pit, is all planned out, so I’ll be working on that when I get to the end of the thing I’m doing now.

About The Blood Strand:
Having left the Faroes as a child, Jan Reyna is now a British police detective, and the islands are foreign to him. But he is drawn back when his estranged father is found unconscious with a shotgun by his side and someone else’s blood at the scene. Then a man’s body is washed up on an isolated beach. Is Reyna’s father responsible?

Looking for answers, Reyna falls in with local detective Hjalti Hentze. But as the stakes get higher and Reyna learns more about his family and the truth behind his mother’s flight from the Faroes, he must decide whether to stay, or to forsake the strange, windswept islands for good.