Jason Beech is a writer of crime-noir. He has published three novels, three collections of short stories, and many anthology contributions. His most recent publication is the third volume of short stories in his Bullets Teeth and Fists series, reviewed elsewhere on this site.
For this interrogation, I had him brought to my literary building site, to answer my questions and account for himself.
Yes boys, bring him in here. But get his coat off him first. And that bag – ditch it. Of course: frisk him please. Ah – something in his sock, I see! Get that off him boys. I’m sure he only keeps it there for peeling apples, but my questions might upset him and I wouldn’t like my tongue cut out. Done? Yes – in the chair by the window please. Here boys: have some cable ties. You don’t like it by the window, Mr Beech? Too much light? Of course there isn’t any glass yet, but when the builders are finished I assure you it will be bullet-proof. Too late for you perhaps. Sad.
So. To business. Mr Beech. You may not be aware but I have been following you for some time. (Perhaps you noticed me out of the corner of your eye?) Am I the kind of person who normally tails you? Female? A certain age? European? Or are you on the lookout for a different sort of follower? Tell me, what would you see as your typical reader?
The first review I ever had is from a woman, for a book long off the shelves. She comes from Leeds. Another is a female US lawyer, and as I come from a northern English council estate, that blows my mind. Otherwise, I don’t know my typical reader. I’d like to think they’re well-read, play or watch roundball football, can party like tomorrow will blow up, and can hold a conversation without resorting to catchphrases. I’d hope they could have a laugh and then turn on a dime and delve into what a bunch of bastards humans can be with each other.
That would do me.
Clever answer! Perhaps you want to flatter me. And what would you like me – I mean them – to get out of your writing?
I would love it if they were entertained, but left the story with all of it on their mind for a day or two. At least an hour. Entertained might seem a strange word when there’s a lot of dark stuff in the stories, but the best art is that which entertains as well as shifts and reorganises your internal organs, on top of sitting in your mind and marinading.
Hmm. I normally leave ‘reorganisation of internal organs’ to my boys here. (They do it so well). But where do you get these gruesome images from? Do you write ‘what you know’? Are these dreadful ideas autobiographical?
If I wrote only what I know then you’d wade through a whole lot of football noir. Ian Ayris does that a lot better than I would, though I do have one in Bullets 2. That one came from a night refereeing a 5-a-side game in Sheffield. One player did not like my decision and threatened to cut off my head. I like a little cut-and-thrust so I told him to do it or shut up and get on with the game. The handbook the league gave me said I should always be polite, but some of these men lived for their 5-a-side nights and a bad result could ruin their week. The abuse triggered my foul mouth and I gave as good as I got. I think it’s only now, maybe fifteen years later, that the soap and water has cleaned the filth out of there.
Well I’m glad you have been practising oral hygiene! You grew up in Sheffield I gather. Rough sort of place? Up north in the UK isn’t it?(I never go north of Antwerp, personally).
Sheffield was, and is, rough, but mostly in the right way. People say hello on the streets, still. At least when I go back home. There’s idiots on the night streets sometimes, a lot of car crime, but nothing crazy. And the city’s southwest is the country’s fourth wealthiest area. You can drive some rough estates and suddenly arrive on streets paved in gold.
Hmm. You seem rather aware of the streets of Sheffield, Mr Beech. Street kid were you? Did you have an unhappy childhood?
I had a fantastic childhood. I grew up on a council estate at the edge of a green belt and we lived in those fields and woods, or we played football on the street or the patch of grass across from our house until our mums shouted us in for tea. Rinse and repeat. My parents split when I was eight, and I’m sure it had an effect, but my younger years were glorious.
There’s grey areas, of course. The miner’s strike, the closure of many factories – I remember seas of demolished bricks in Sheffield around the pub my dad took us to, like some stranded ship but with a snooker table, beer, and the stench of cigarettes. I remember the TV series, Threads, set in my home city, about nuclear destruction. When that bomb mushroomed above streets where we shopped I had nightmares for a few weeks. A couple of my schoolmates, Lisa and Keeley, played charred extras in that, so it made it a little less real. And being England, and Sheffield, I’m sure we had more grey skies than not, but I remember my childhood with a lot of sunshine.
It had a few noir moments. One lad had a real beating at a house party, Joe Pesci style. Fights between schools involving screwdrivers. A boy in my school sent down for beating an old woman to death with her alarm clock from a burglary gone wrong. The strange man on the fields who chased my sister. The man on one of our fields who looked dead, but jumped to his feet and screamed when we approached him with sticks. The camping sleepover which went pear-shaped.
The kids in my stories are often composites of kids I knew growing up and myself, but painted with much darker thoughts and actions. I don’t think any of it would make great reading without conflict, unless I turned it all into a Derry Girls-style comedy.
But the vast majority of my childhood (so my rose-tinted memory recalls) was great.
Well, if you say so. But Sheffield. Since it’s clearly inspired you, I wonder why you left… I’m sure you had reasons. To the States? On the run were you? It might be better to tell me now, rather than making me …. Well, you know… draw it out of you.
Not on the run exactly, but I’ve done a lot of travelling. I’ve stayed in a hundred or so Super 8s, a ton of Motel 9s. I’ve seen a lot of the country. It’s mental and fascinating.
For years I travelled a lot in America, I stayed in Americans’ homes, ate with them, cleaned their dishes, coached their kids football, argued with their politics, but never have I felt unwelcome. I drove from Atlanta to a town on the Florida/Georgia border on a sales trip back in 2006, afterwards followed my contact (a veteran) down some out-there side roads, down a dirt-track deep in isolated woods, to his house where he lived alone, and slept on his sofa. I admit, I was nervous, but the fella was fantastic. Fed me, offered up his beers, and saw me off back to Atlanta the next day with a smile.
Travelling, Oh yes… broadens the mind… But to settle there? Of all the god-forsaken countries in the world, all the snake pits of violence and hypocrisy, all the places with nightmarish incarceration rates and cruel systems and ghastly politicians, you had to choose THAT one? (Oh, I’m sorry! Did my prejudices show? Excuse me, that was a wardrobe malfunction, I’ll just cover my embarrassment with these stars and stripes.) Let me start again: Why did you choose to stay in the USA, Mr Beech?
Ah, a woman held me there. A femme fatale with a cynical eyebrow and come-hither eyes made me fall for her. I’ve never regretted it.
I was coaching over there. Met my wife at a party in Philadelphia across from the Art Museum (home of the Rocky steps and statue) while staying at another woman’s apartment (hello Shana), who had a cool boyfriend at the time (no funny business).
I live in New Jersey now. There’s Trenton over there, run down, lots of poverty, with some serious gangs (there have been recent gun-running and drug busts), and not far away there’s Princeton, a pretty town full of Wallys/Waldos. The game there is not to find Waldo, it’s find the normal person. That’s a bit harsh, I do love to wander its streets, but it’s overpriced, and the preppyness can conjure my working class sneer – the Marti Crane in me.
America is a funny place, powerful but nervous it’s losing its place, going through the same pangs Britain experienced in the late 19th and early 20th centuries about its role and rank in the world and what is coming next. It’s a fascinating place to be.
America is nuts. But for all its faults, I love it.
So with all that material, how come you’re still writing about the UK… Is it nostalgia?
I love my homeland. Sheffield, for all its many faults, is embedded in me. I’ve been in the States for years now, but I still have the Sheffield accent. I enunciate more so the good people over here can understand me – there’s many who still don’t. You can say there’s a bit of nostalgia, along with the fact that most of my life was spent there, so I’ll never shake it, nor would I want to. But I do write plenty about the USA. City of Forts is set here and so is its sequel, American Spartan (40,000 words so far), where I do try to get under the skin of how some Americans see the world, without, I hope, polemicizing.
Yes, I spotted a political undercurrent in your writing, long ago. But I’ve noticed some changes in your writing recently. (That’s why I got worried and had to call you in). Back in 2013, the first of your Bullets Teeth and Fists series. Remember that? Yes? Well I couldn’t help noticing that most of those stories were about men who were, (how shall I put it?), rather short of romantic satisfactions: men who want women who don’t want them back, perhaps. It seemed to be quite a theme, really. But this latest one, well I wouldn’t call it family reading, but it does have a lot of families in it… and rather a lot of parents and children… Some couples. Women even. You never used to bother with them. Is there anything you want to tell me about this? I am concerned that you might have been… how shall I put it? Compromised.
Ha. I read a CrimeReads piece a while back that talked about families in crime fiction, and they coined the term Family Noir, which is what I think I write. I don’t know how it came to that. I’m interested in male/female dynamics and what attracts us to each other and what doesn’t.
The first Bullets, I’m trying to remember, but I’m sure there’s a family in there somewhere. And one which ends in love. It’s been a long time. But, I think it’s a great noir tic – a woman’s rejection of a man can create some powerful emotions. One night in a Sheffield nightclub I remember this one man flirting with a woman, who played along and it was all fun. But the man expected the night to end in bed and she wasn’t up for that at all. Just wanted a good night on the town without the mess at the end. His reaction was something else. Fury. Humiliation (though why he felt humiliated I’m not sure). Revenge. He called her all kinds of names, his face so taught I thought his skull would pop out the top of his head, and leaning in to her in a way I thought would end in violence. It didn’t, but the man’s insecurity stuck with me. I’ve seen women react badly, too, but not with the same level of entitlement. It’s that kind of emotion, that kind of ego … it’s always ripe to pluck from the noir tree. I suppose I now write more women than before because I’m more confident in my writing, and more comfortable exploring how they see it from their side. Which is what that fella should have done. I used that episode in Moorlands (2016). I won’t ever forget it.
Since I’ve become a parent I’ve become aware of how my actions affect my daughter. Then you go down that path of wondering what would happen if I did this, if I did that. What would happen to me if she acted in such-and-such a way, did something I didn’t like. But I hope she never experiences anything like that woman had to deal with.
Luckily, my family life is nothing like the horrible stuff that comes out of my mind.
Let us be grateful for small mercies! But rather close to that ‘horrible stuff’ (I mean in your dedications) a couple of names keep cropping up. The same names. Neeta. Sorrel. Who are they? (My boys can help you remember if you’re finding it difficult…)
Neeta is my wife, Sorrel my daughter.
I see. So are they admirers of your ‘horrible stuff’? (Your daughter is how old?) Do you feel they’ll ‘get out of your writing’ what you wanted your typical reader to get? Their organs rearranged, their minds marinading in your ideas? If so, are you happy about that?
I hope my daughter doesn’t read my stuff until she’s old enough. Neeta likes my stuff, but it freaks her out a little. I always have to assure her I’m not writing about myself. She also makes some excellent points about the style. I’ve really cut down on the word ‘like’ (‘his face lit up like a broken neon takeaway sign, he bent like an old man’s posture‘, and so on) because of her. And the stories are better for it.
So as a family man… well, it’s hard to put this nicely, but your writing isn’t exactly very fragrant. I can’t see it going down well in the PTA…. They might be engaged by the ‘English writer’ thing, but none of it is exactly Jane Austen is it?
I coach round-ball football and I sometimes worry any parents who read my stuff are going to think I’m an absolute lunatic. That I’m unstable and belong in a cell. But they know me. They know I’m alright. So they tell me, anyway.
But they’re religious aren’t they, Americans? Do you wear a mask or use a pseudonym in church? Or is ‘Jason Beech’ a pseudonym?
I don’t go to church, so I don’t have that problem. Though one lovely Georgian family (and I mean that) did persuade me to go to their Baptist church to see the joy they had from it all. The preacher spent the sermon (he must have known I was coming) trying to convince unbelievers that God is with us all. He asked the congregation to lower their eyes to the floor and raise their hand if they hadn’t yet accepted Jesus Christ into their lives. Now, which heathen would sit in a pew for a Sunday sermon?
I refused to play along and kept my hand down. The man got a little Righteous Gemstones and raised the room’s temperature, but no way would I get involved in his game. He tried again at the end, asking anyone who didn’t believe to step out now while the congregation did their thing at the church front. Again I refused, and the family, mortified by his behaviour asked me to stay while they did their thing and then we walked out together. Out in the car park the preacher refused to look my way and the family apologised to me. They were great.
I’m not against religion, I see why people have faith, it’s just not for me.
So … no, I don’t need to worry about that. Thing is, I live a normal, enjoyable life. I’m not minted. I don’t live in one of those McMansions where you can lose your kids for weeks on end in that room you can’t remember having. But neither am I skint and begging on the streets. So I like to delve into the dark stuff without having to become an actual criminal.
Quite right. None of us would like to be criminals Mr Beech. (That’s right boys, isn’t it?) But you’re looking pained – my questions may be taxing you. Don’t worry it will soon be all over. (For you, at least…) Just two more questions. Don’t worry, these ones aren’t too personal – I’ve decided to ask all my, er, interviewees these same questions, since my previous victim answered them so nicely. (You know those literary interviews where they ask everyone the same boring questions? Other interrogators seem to find this useful, so I thought I might emulate.)
First, do you do any martial arts? (Curiously, a good friend pointed out to me that most of the authors we both admire seem to do so). So I’ve taken up boxing in the hope of becoming a famous writer. But I’m having some difficulty with my uppercut. Could I show you? (While you’ve still got your arms tied down I mean…)
But I was told all guns, knives, and uppercuts had to be left in the box by the entrance… ? Please! No!
Calm down! A good uppercut: it’s poetry in motion. I’m only trying to get literary tips out of you. (Perhaps how to rearrange an organ or two, as you put it). Do you see any connection between martial arts and literary ones?
OK! I did karate for about a week and a half in 1978. I didn’t get to hit anybody so I packed it in. I did boxing as a kid, in a scraggy gym in Sheffield’s Wicker area, where I got to punch and be punched. My eyesight put paid to that.
I coach soccer now. You can’t get more poetic than the beautiful game.
Well parried, Mr Beech! I will ask my boys to play football with you later. (Or with some part of you, anyway. After some marinading perhaps.) So last of all – I would advise you to answer this one carefully, as it may affect the next decision I make about you. (This is my ‘closing on a high moral tone’ question, though feel free to subvert it if you want to take a risk…) If you could tweak the human DNA to insert one drive or principle that would modify the human psyche – something that humans would instinctively feel obliged to follow – what would that be?
I’d insert the idea that wealth does not equal morality. I hear a lot of Victorian-era bullshit about the working poor needing to pull up their bootstraps and that they deserve their penury, forgetting all the variables which cause poverty.
Ah, so right, Mr Beech! (I knew I could get your politics out of you, sooner or later!) Well thank you so much for your cooperation today. I appreciate it. A little civilised chat always brightens my day. We may not meet again of course. But I’ll remember you with… with… Well, never mind. I’m sure I’ll remember you anyway.
Goodbye Mr Beech. Goodbye. (No! Not in here boys, please. Not right now. Show me some respect. I don’t want to spoil my tea and biscuits.)
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