Oliver Stark about ... American Devil
interviewed Jun 2010 by Sarah Rudd
Knowing that you love New York and that you even proposed to your wife over there – what on earth compelled you, a British author, to set your creepy creation loose on the Big Apple and its unsuspecting inhabitants?
The main reason was distance - there are a few thousand miles of ocean separating me from my creations. It felt a lot safer that way. I can walk around my own area without having to imagine those creations lurking close to home.
I also found that the mythical cityscape of New York, rather than the well-known streets of London, freed my imagination and allowed me to create the characters and situations I wanted to. America is a very big canvas and it's an exciting prospect trying to capture it. I grew up reading American fiction and well as British books and, of course, watching American films, so my imaginative landscape, as most of us would probably say, is a little part American.Tom Harper as our main protagonist fits the typical mould as the cynical, dysfunctional and emotionally damaged detective. Do you feel this is somewhat cliché, or do you prefer to follow the train of thought that believes fictional detectives have to have these kinds of flaws to enable readers to relate to them?
Archetypes aren’t necessarily clichés even if they share some characteristics. You need a kind of shorthand with characters - like you do in fairytales: 'Once upon a time there was a crime fighter, he lived alone in New York, he was slightly dysfunctional. One day, a serial killer arrived on the scene...' (actually I might continue this story...)
If the only thing about crime heroes was their flaws, then they'd be limited, but they are more than that. The interesting thing, for me, is to watch a character act, interact and develop. I think character is about the battle between your flaws and qualities. You hope - over time, that your qualities win, but sometimes the flaws get the upper hand. Character is a drama, it's not fixed, but most of us are more likely to see our own flaws than our talents. Therefore, yes, we need to see weaknesses in others to really identify with them. With high stress jobs like catching killers, the flaws really play a big part because the experiences these characters face are so extreme and testing. Is Tom Harper more than his flaws? Yes, I think so. I hope so...I hope his qualities win through.Denise Levene as the female ‘heroine’ isn’t just the token female or simple love interest; for which we are truly grateful. In fact, Levene is given her own history and issues – was it important (or even intentional) to create an equitable counterpart to Tom Harper?
Denise Levene is central to the story in many ways and she's a genuine and equal counterpart to the overtly macho Tom Harper. I think the characters are much more similar than immediately appears. They have the same values, under all the superficial differences. I wanted to write a series about two lead characters and Denise gets equal billing in my book. I think I'm just as interested in her journey and her strength as I am in Tom Harper. I can't wait to see what happens to them next.The American Devil, or ‘Nick’ (aka ‘Sebastian’) is clearly off his rocker in a gloriously undone fashion, there are tantalising hints that it stems from a childhood trauma involving a foster sister, Bethany – but it’s never made clear what happened. Can you spill?
I had a very clear back-story for The American Devil, much of it written in detail from birth to teenage years. But those parts didn't make it into the book. Partly, I think, because nothing really accounts for the kind of behaviour that Nick or any other killer displays. Sometimes, knowing that a killer had a damaged upbringing or some other motivating reason can reduce the impact of their story and can cloud our morbid curiosity. We want our monsters to be untamed and unleashed. Part of the thrill of the thriller is the fear and too much explanation can take that away. So, I won't spill the beans but will leave it to your imagination. That the killer is unhinged and potentially suffering from a psychotic break enables you to switch between the diminutive personality of ‘Nick’, who despite his happy little family, senses something is not quite right about him and ‘Sebastian’, cold, clinical and scarily bloodthirsty; but where do you stand on the whole “inherently evil” position versus the “made evil” position?
I don't think we can ever know. I think that we'd all want to believe that human beings are all born innocent, but who knows whether evolution throws a few damaged minds at us every once in a while. I don't think that evil is a quality that people have inside them, I think people have evil predilections but evil is, I think, a decision. In 'American Devil', I was interested in the idea that 'Nick' creates the illusion of another person, separate from himself, because he is denying the truth that these acts are under his own volition. I think people have the choice to act or not to act, but it helps them (and us) to believe that evil overpowers them. It's why evil is banal - it is a choice and not a very impressive one. However, on balance, I think, in this case, Nick was made evil.Old-style crime fiction appears to bear a heavy influence on your own writing – how much do you feel it is important to keep to traditions or are you hoping to bring your own flavour to modern crime writing?
I am respectful of the past and of the great writers who created the genre. I love the old-style crime fiction and will always enjoy reading and re-reading it as much as I enjoy modern crime fiction. But you have to do try your own things as well. I'm sure 'American "Devil' is full of influences from all kinds of different books, mostly unconscious but one or two maybe a little more conscious. I hope I've managed to bring something new to the genre as well! I like working within the genre and seeing what you can do with it. We found out that you write under an assumed name, which we find totally intriguing (we love a bit of mystery!), so we figured we’d keep the personal questions pretty low-key – here goes: are you a jeans and t-shirt man or a suit and tie man?
I'll keep the answer simple too - I wear both, not together, but depending on the occasion. And now the obvious, glaring question: why ‘Oliver Stark’, why not ‘M.G Cutter’ or ‘B.B Dunnin’?
I wish there was a great reason but there wasn't. I had a long list of thrilling names (although it didn't include your suggestions) and I liked the sound of Oliver Stark, then it just seemed to stick. However, whether is goes back to my favourite childhood comic hero, Jon Stark, the mercenary footballer, I just don't know. Slightly off kilter here, but which sport do you prefer: football or rugby (we ask only as the World Cup is coming up!)?
I like both and will be watching the World Cup with interest. It is in our nature to expect disappointment, but let's hope to have our expectations dashed this time.If you couldn’t write Crime/Thrillers, what other genre would you dip your toe into?
I'd like to try writing a crime story set in the future. I've got an idea up my sleeve that just might work. I'm quite excited about it, I'll let you know if it gets anywhere...But first I've got to write the next Tom Harper and Denise Levene book.Read our full review of American Devil by Oliver Stark