Oliver Harris is an English crime fiction writer who was born in North London in 1978. He has a degree in English Literature and an MA in Shakespeare Studies from UCL, and an MA in creative writing from UEA. He has worked in clothing warehouses, PR companies and as a TV and film extra. More recently he assisted with research in the Imperial War Museum archives, and continues to act as a reviewer for the Times Literary Supplement.
He has written three novels featuring London detective Nick Belsey: The Hollow Man, Deep Shelter and The House of Fame. Both books are published by Jonathan Cape/Vintage and are also available as ebooks.
So that’s my Introduction and here’s the Interview:
Do you have any rules for writing which you think have served you well?
Story structure – you need someone with a clearly defined goal, meeting an obstacle, responding to it. Again and again. The stakes need to be clear, and to increase over time. Over the course of a novel there need to be two or three moments when it turns a totally new and unexpected corner.
In terms of style – cut, cut, cut; get rid of extraneous paragraphs, sentences, words. People want clear, clean prose with pace. Avoid the passive voice where possible; use strong verbs, nouns rich with specificity.
What attracted you to writing crime fiction?
Firstly, I like form – the idea of the perfect plot. And crime’s a genre that delves into darkness that I find seductive: psychological, social, political. I associate crime writing with the fast, crisp, hard style that I enjoy. It’s edgy while being hugely popular – a great, fertile crossover.
Can you think of a few tips of the top of your head for writing the perfect antagonist/protagonist?
Character is defined by action. The perfect protagonist surprises us with their responses to a difficult situation. You have to put them in a difficult/ impossible and increasingly complex situation – and they have to respond to that challenge in ways that draw upon resources even they didn’t know they had. The perfect antagonist is anyone who provides the necessary obstacle and threat – ideally one that touches the protagonist’s core.
What problems did you encounter when you first started writing crime fiction?
Predictable ones – not having the confidence to write a crime novel that only I could write; being derivative, losing sight of good plotting and story structure. Not being generous with characters’ feelings and emotions. For fear of over-writing I ended up with quite wooden, two-dimensional prose.
Do your prefer your work to be faced paced or build towards a conclusion?
Both, if I understand the question: fast paced, building towards a conclusion. I’m trying to be slightly less relentless with the next one – you want some variety of pace – but the reader must always have the sense that it’s building, and a question to which they want the answer.
How much research do you do in preparation for writing a novel?
Enough to get the imagination going, but you don’t want to get bogged down. It’s always great to get first-hand research, visiting people and places – gives you confidence to imagine the rest. But never let it get in the way of the story.
Can you give me some tips for crafting an intimidating criminal?
Avoiding cliche is a big one here. The point is not so much crafting an intimidating criminal as creating a credible threat to someone we care about. Use detail and restraint to make them realistic. Less is often more.
Do you read much and if so who are your favourite authors?
Always reading. Favourites: John Banville, JM Coetzee, William Faulkner, Richard Ford, Alice Munro, Lawrence Block, Raymond Chandler, James Joyce, Anton Chekhov, Franz Kafka, Samuel Beckett, James M Cain.
What was one of the most surprising things you learned in creating your books?
The creative process is in your control. You don’t have to wait for inspiration to strike. Keep going and keep thinking. Problems can be analysed and solved. You need to consciously decide what you’re trying to achieve and how to get there.
Do you have any advice to give to aspiring writers?
It’s all about finishing. Get a draft done, and then you can stand back and start thinking about how to improve it. Hemingway said ‘all first drafts are shit’. It’s editing and redrafting that makes good writing. Too many aspiring writers get caught up trying to perfect one novel.
Actually, being a professional writer involves finishing projects and moving on to new ones – lots of them.
Finally, figure out why you enjoy writing. It’s an incredibly beautiful and endlessly fascinating thing to do – far more fascinating than any publishing deal etc. Figure out why you love reading and writing and make this the central motivation of your work.
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