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Charlie Williams

13 June 11 words: Robin Lewis
Discusses his novella Graven Image, about a former brothel bouncer's descent into the criminal underworld.
 Charlie Williams, author of Graven Image.

Graven Image is the latest release in Five Leaves Publishing's Crime Express series of novellas, and depicts the descent into nightmare of a former brothel bouncer, Leon, as he tries to square his debts with the mysterious underworld crime lord Graven.  As he stumbles through an increasingly fractured world in which his perception and reality seem to drift ever further apart, Leon encounters the dregs of the local criminal society and tries to find redemption amidst the appalling fragments of his life.  It’s a sleek and sharp bullet of a story that twists and spirals down towards a concussive conclusion that’s both surprising and absolutely fitting. We caught up with author Charlie Williams and put a friendly gun to his head until he answered our questions.

Leon is a deeply troubled guy.  What gave you the idea of him, and, without spoiling too much of what goes on in the book, his particular situation?
I noticed a stained glass window in Worcester Cathedral depicting a bishop from centuries ago getting burned at the stake, yet maintaining the most serene and confident expression on his face. That made me think about belief and conviction. If we convince ourselves of something, and it is serious enough, we can walk through walls for it. Or get burned at the stake. Pretty much immediately I came up with a character through which I could explore that. But his belief was more personal, and the background was underground crime rather than religion. I guess that's just me!

Regarding his particular situation, I am always interested in family relationships and how they make us so vulnerable. We can't bear for one of our nearest to get harmed, so it makes an easy target for someone who has an agenda against you. But Leon is not the person you want to have an agenda against.

Graven Image is a weird, unsettling ride into Leon's damaged psyche, and the story twists off into directions you'd never expect, often pretty bleak ones, but often pretty funny ones as well, and the end result is very much distinct from a run of the mill crime caper novel. Are you consciously challenging the tropes of the crime genre, or does that kind of thing not enter your mind?
I tend to start any story or novel with a premise that could be the opening of a crime novel. I think that's because it's the genre that does it best - they get you from the start with a problem and keep you turning the pages, which all books should do. But I don't make any effort to keep the story on the straight and narrow of crime conventions. That would send me to sleep. I'm much more interested in allowing my main character to be damaged in some way and making the story about him or her, rather than having them solve a crime or rescue everyone. So no, I'm not consciously challenging any tropes, just ignoring them. I'm not into tropes. In a way, this might hold me back from having wider commercial appeal, but I hope it makes for a more interesting read.

Did you find yourself wanting more elbow room to tell the story, or was Graven Image an idea that you felt would fit the novella length perfectly?
David Belbin from Five Leaves Press approached me about doing a Crime Express story, so I knew from the start that it had to be short. This one suggested itself pretty much immediately. I knew the story of Leon had to be a relatively swift and breathless one, so I didn't concern myself too much with the trappings of a longer novel. I had to get straight into Leon's head and get the story moving from the start. Saying that, I think as much goes on in Graven Image as a lot of novels, especially with the dual timescale thing and other kinds of layering.
You're currently writing a serial novel on your blog featuring Royston Blake, a character about which you've written four novels already.  How are you finding the experience?
Occasionally I wonder what the hell I'm doing. In short, I'm writing a first draft of a long piece of fiction (possibly a novel) and posting up a chapter per day for anyone to read. Which means I cannot go back and change anything, because it would be like the pages of a book morphing after you have read them. Am I nuts? No one writes a novel that way! But, strangely, it's going really well. The self-imposed pressure is driving the novel forward, and the inability to change things focuses me on what's to come. I kind of fell into this anyway. Sometimes I trot Royston Blake out for a guest post, and this one has turned in a big, ongoing one.

The four Royston Blake novels are being reissued this summer, by the way, starting with Deadfolk which has just come out. There will be one per month leading to a new one - One Dead Hen - in August. By then I might have another finished - online!

What else are you currently working on?
This online thing is pretty much taking up my time as I have a day job and kids etc (*insert whinge here*). But I do have a few other novels at various stages. I made a decision a couple of years back to stop writing a novel if it gets stuck, and move to another one, be it one which was previously stuck or a new one. It means I don't finish them as regularly, but I could end up with three or four novels done this year.

"I'm much more interested in allowing my main character to be damaged in some way and making the story about him or her, rather than having them solve a crime or rescue everyone."

Who do you read?  Anybody who makes you feel grinding envy?
I have never felt envious of other writers. That's not me being arrogant, just not very competitive. Get me playing any kind of sport or game and I'll be the most vicious, cheating monster you can imagine (and a sore loser), but I don't think that has a place in creative pursuits. I just want to do my own stuff and make it as polished as it can be. But I do have writers I hold dear and who I know have influenced me. A few American writers from the pulp era - Jim Thompson, Charles Willeford and Fredric Brown - are favourites. You could get away with a lot in those days because there was such a demand for manuscripts, and they really pushed the boundaries into dark and whacked out places, though they were very different from each other. I also love Thomas Hardy and Magnus Mills, both of whom have or had such distinct abilities to depict the human struggle... in quintessentially English ways. Contemporary writers other than Mills would be Ray Banks and Allan Guthrie, who trade in the kind of cornered rat characters I love to read, and Willy Vlautin, who is the poet laureate of people who cannot get their shit together. I could go on naming others but we'd be here all day.

Charlie Williams website
For more details on the Crime Express series, see the Five Leaves website


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