What is UNIVERSITY OF LIFE about?
It’s a crime story set in the East Midlands during the summer of 1997, when Britpop was at full strength and people were so happy-go-lucky they elected Tony Blair.
In the midst of this, a pile up on the M1 leads to a young girl doing a runner with a suitcase filled with cocaine. Her father joins forces with her ex-boyfriend (a Private Investigator) to find and protect her from the insane crime boss who the coke belongs to. A lot of crazy shit happens along the way.
It’s a mix of detective fiction, action buddy comedy and British gangster films, but the good ones, not the Mockney-bargain-bin-at-HMV ones. A lot of it takes place on the road, too. There’s nothing quite like a good mismatched couple movie, like Lethal Weapon, Midnight Run or 48 Hours.
What were the influences behind the book?
80% films and 20% Elmore Leonard books. I’ve recently discovered his works and I’m in awe of him. His work rate was something to behold, but the way he weaves his tales, without all the filler bullshit you get in so many books, is something else.
The films that influenced the book are those by Martin McDonagh, Shane Black, Shane Meadows and Guy Ritchie’s first two. This is a gangster tale of sorts, but without the stuff that bogs most of them down. The macho rubbish. These guys are tough, but they’re criminals mostly because they’re not smart enough to be anything else. And they’re damaged goods. These types of characters are always interesting, at least to me.
Why set the story in 1997?
I was 16 at the time, and Cool Britannia was in full swing. The mood of the country was one of optimism and everybody seemed to like one another. The exact opposite of now, basically. Princess Diana in a bikini was on every page of every paper, and Tony Blair was having his photograph taken with Noel Gallagher rather than Gaddafi.
The other reason for it being set in 1997 is that modern technology has the potential to ruin a good story. This story could be solved with one Facebook post, or a smart phone message, but then what would I do?
The girl who goes on the run leaves her shitty mobile behind, because she’s hardly using it. I had a mobile for two years before I switched it on longer than ten minutes a day. I miss those days.
You can tell. All of your books are set in the past, even the kids book you wrote. Is there something about the modern age that you don’t like?
At the risk of sounding 300 years old, I do think technology – social media especially – has turned a lot of people into social lepers. Googling something counts as knowledge now, but as we know, experience is so much more valuable than simply having the answer. My characters – and the stories themselves – are seeking for answers through experience, and sometimes it doesn’t go well. As it does in real life.
Having said that, I love some areas of technology. My smart phone, Netflix, YouTube, iTunes. I’d be lost without them. I’m not a grumpy old man or a technophobe, I just prefer stories to be rooted outside of all that stuff.
You balance comedy and drama really well, especially in this book, where there are scenes of graphic violence, followed by a moment of levity. Is that a conscious decision, or does it happen naturally?
Both, and I think it happens naturally in real life. I remember watching a fight once, and half way through the fight, a guy threw a punch and farted at the same time. The guy he was fighting – who was bleeding from the nose and gums – started laughing. They shared a laugh about it for a split second, then went back to kicking the shit out of each other. I just think that the extremes of life are always on the brink of absurdity, whether it’s a gunfight, fist fight or a scene of torture.
There’s a graphic scene of torture in this book, and following that, it becomes a housekeeping issue…
Somebody has to clean it up.
I think Tarantino, McDonagh and Shane Black recognise the line between horror and comedy in moments like that. In The Nice Guys, Russell Crowe dodges a bullet and it hits someone in the apartment across the way. It makes you laugh in the film, but it’s horrific when you stop to think about it. But it’s what would happen. There has to be consequences when you’re shooting guns at each other and not every bullet hits.
The ending sets up a potential sequel, or a series, even. Does that interest you?
Very much so, and I have the next one planned out. But if nobody reads this one, I’ll shelf the idea and focus on something else. Each story takes so much out of you, so if people don’t respond to it, convincing myself to follow it up would be pretty hard. Fortunately, I have many more stories to tell, across many different genres.
What’s next for you?
Lots of begging people to read the book on social media, then lots of plotting. That second bit makes me sound like a Bond villain.
I’d like to do another children’s book. I have one mapped out which is a cross between The Road, Finding Nemo and Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy. It’s a post-alien invasion book about a kid who’s looking for his little sister. He meets lots of interesting characters along the way, including a baby alien that has been left behind by mistake.
The follow-up to University of Life is called Hiding in Plain Sight, and is much more of a straight-ahead mystery. I’m excited about that one, but I’ll only write it if more than four people buy this one. I’m emotionally blackmailing everyone starting now.