My first review of 2014 was Long Way Home, a cracker of a debut novel by British author, Eva Dolan.
Long Way Home opens with the discovery of a corpse of an adult male migrant worker in the burnt out remains of a backyard shed. That makes it a job for the Hate Crimes Unit of the local Peterborough plod, and introduces the two main characters, themselves immigrants, DI Zigic, a third generation Serb living in the town, and his offsider, Ferrier, a young policewoman of Portuguese decent.
Long Way Home is a deceptively hardboiled story and an accomplished book from a writer I suspect we are going to be hearing a lot more from in the years to come.
Eva was nice enough to drop by Pulp Curry and answer some questions about researching and writing Long Way Home, the literary benefits of a quiet day job and the lessons she’s learning from playing poker applicable to writing crime fiction.
Tell us the story behind your debut novel, Long Way Home. What inspired it?
The initial inspiration for Long Way Home was a conversation I overheard in a pub – two men discussing the methods of a local gangmaster who conducted his business like a latter-day slave owner, keeping order with threats and beatings, withholding wages and skimming every way he could. I was infuriated by what I’d heard but intrigued too; how was this happening in a country with supposedly rigorous employment and human rights laws? How common was it? The idea stayed with me – distracting me away from the book I was supposed to be writing – and I knew it was a subject I wanted to explore further.
Did you always plan to make the two main characters, DI Zigic and his off sider Ferreira, members of Peterborough’s police Hate Crimes Unit or is that something that developed as you thought through the story?
Once I knew the storyline was going to focus on issues arising from immigration it felt like the natural home for them. The under reporting of Hate Crimes and the establishment of dedicated units in the UK was receiving press coverage over here at the time as well so having them be part of something new appealed to me. It’s a sad fact that Hate Crimes aren’t yet perceived as distinct from other crimes, despite several high profile cases over here in recent years, and I wanted to explore how the roots of a murder based on race or ethnicity are different to ones arising out of crime fiction’s usual holy trinity of sex, money and power.
But as I moved forward with the book the motivations which emerged became more murky and the Hate Crimes element ultimately boiled down to a kind of hierarchy of victims – who gets lost within British society, who’s suffering gets ignored – and an exploration of an isolated, self-policing sub culture.
Long Way Home contains some particularly harrowing depictions of the treatment of illegal migrant workers in the UK. These read as very authentic and deeply researched. How did you achieve this? What research did you do? Where you able to use first person informants?
It was important to me that this book wouldn’t read like a tourist jaunt through a very tough part of British society; a lot of migrant workers live comfortably and well but the ones who don’t have a really hard time of it and I wanted to communicate their experience as faithfully as possible. Initially it was a matter of walking around the streets where I set the book to get a sense of the atmosphere, going in the shops and cafes, but that was all about window dressing.
When it came to understanding the methods of gangmasters and employment agencies I needed firsthand sources; luckily I knew people who were prepared to talk about what they’d been through and one man in particular, a completely reputable agency owner, proved a great source of information, explaining how the unregulated end of the industry worked.
Everything in this book is based in reality. I wish it was pure fiction but unfortunately the brutality and corruption, the poor living conditions and violence and exploitation, are depressingly common for migrant workers in the UK.
I described Long Way Home as deceptively hard-boiled read. This is unusual because it’s also a police procedural. Obviously, these are popular but for my money, a lot of them are fairly pedestrian and by the book. A cop with marriage problems solves a murder in a quaint English countryside town. That sort of thing. Where you conscious of writing a procedural but wanting to make it different from a lot of those on the market? If so, how did you go about doing it?
I love reading a well crafted police procedural but my world view tends more towards the hardboiled and everything I’ve previously written has been at the darker end of the spectrum – maybe that’s why the issues in Long Way Home appealed to me so much. The things I unearthed during research couldn’t be softened, or at least I wasn’t prepared to gloss over the unpleasant truths, so even though the book is set partly in a rural landscape it was never going to be quaint.
From the start I wanted to do something slightly different to the usual CID based police procedural, partly out of mercenary commercial concerns and partly because I liked the idea of putting some boundaries on the books for myself. I wanted to stick with this world and the issues which arise within in because it’s so alien to a lot of readers still. Putting Zigic and Ferreira in Hate Crimes meant I couldn’t get sidetracked and would be able to, hopefully, build a deep and complex view of migrant communities as the series continued.
I was very impressed by the writing in Long Way Home. It felt like the work of a much more seasoned writer than a debut novelist. How long have you been writing fiction for, both published and unpublished?
Thank-you kindly. I’ve actually been writing since I was kid and started approaching it seriously during my teens, mostly horror and dystopian science fiction back then. The shift to crime happened when I was about eighteen and once I made it I knew that was the genre I really wanted to explore. It took about ten years of trying and scrapping books, learning as I went along and reading loads, before I felt confident enough to look for an agent. It was a long apprenticeship.
I’m fascinated to know from authors how much time they spend on a book? How long did this book take for you to write?
It took around six months to get a first draft I was broadly happy with, which was quite fast for me. I’d spent a few weeks beforehand researching quite intensively and plotting, so once I sat down to actually start writing I had a defined idea of where the book was going to go. Naturally the characters threw some surprises up along the way but I felt so optimistic about the storyline that I didn’t let it derail me. After that there was the inevitable feedback from my agent and a rewrite which took another two months.
I was lucky with Long Way Home because writing it coincided with a quiet period on my day job so instead of snatching an hour here and a couple there I had the chance to work full days on it, close the office door and concentrate with no distractions. That made a huge difference.
I read somewhere on the web that getting Long Way Home published was the achievement of a childhood dream? Was it always crime that you wanted to write? What books, films or movies influenced you in this direction?
Writing is what I wanted to with my life from a very young age, but it’s so tough to get published that it didn’t feel like a good career move! Finally getting there was just amazing. Once I settled into writing crime I knew that was genre for me. There’s so much scope to it, you can explore political and social issues, it can be absolutely character driven too and psychology has always fascinated me.
Some of the first crime novels I read were the Rebus books by Ian Rankin and John Harvey’s Resnick series and they were a huge influence on my development because they’re grounded in reality – no super villains, no labyrinthine schemes – just people doing wrong for stupid, often completely understandable reasons. The other major influence was Homicide: Life on the Streets, which made me realise just how fascinating an interrogation scene could be. The best part of any episode was Pembleton – okay, usually Pembleton – going into The Box with a suspect and screwing with their head until they cracked. Any writer who wants to learn how to capture an audience with two people sitting on opposite of table needs to watch that show.
There’s a sequel in the works. Without giving too much away, tell us a bit about it.
I’m really superstitious about discussing works in progress but I will say that the next book sees Zigic and Ferreira returning, and this time they’re investigating a fatal hit and run in which several migrant workers have died, whilst struggling to find the perpetrator of a series of brutal, and seemingly random, attacks on local asylum seekers.
Your publicity blurb says you’re a keen poker player. Has playing poker taught you any lessons you’ve been able to apply to writing crime fiction?
Mostly I play online, which is useful as a break from writing and a good way of stepping back from the book for awhile when it’s getting too intense. Playing live – which I don’t do half as much as I’d like to – is far more interesting. It teaches you how to read body language and spot the establishment of trends within peoples lies, which is useful for crime writing because you quickly realise that not everyone becomes nervous and shifty when they’re trying to sell you a line. It also exposes you to an interesting range of people, as poker goes right across the classes, and I’ve heard some great stories and come across some interesting characters I’m sure I wouldn’t have met anywhere else. Very occasionally I win money to buy books with. Very occasionally.
Long Way Home is available in Australian here through Random House.