In his terrific “On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft,” Stephen King notes that the best way to start a novel is with a compelling “what if.” Try this one: “Vacation Killer” sends out a chain email declaring that he’s kidnapped a woman and that if you don’t forward the email to 10 friends he’ll “slit the bitch’s throat.” That’s about as good a “what if” as anyone--Big Steve included--could come up with. It’s the premise for Richard Jay Parker’s debut novel, STOP ME, which is out this week. Born in the same South Wales town as yours truly, for a long time Richard worked as a tv comedy writer, then as a tv producer. Aware that tv was a sinkhole of depravity (with shrinking budgets), he decided it was preferable to write about scary ways of killing people. He moved from London to the beautiful southwest England town of Salisbury and came up with STOP ME.
How long did it take you to get published?
About a decade. I got a good agent with my first novel but it was an odd and warty book and editors were full of either admiration or revulsion for it. None of the positive feedback translated into offers so I was encouraged to write something else. It took a few attempts before I found I enjoyed constructing twisted, contemporary thrillers but then my agent declared she wasn’t comfortable with the genre. I had so many close calls with other agents and publishers after that it became something of a joke. Luckily, my current agent encouraged me to submit some work to the agency he had been poached to. He sold STOP ME in a couple of months.
Would you recommend any books on writing?
Yes. ‘Conversations With My Agent’ by Rob Long. It’s a very funny indictment of the whole writing process (I started by writing scripts for TV). I’ve never read any ‘How To’ books without keeping a grimace off my face though. I think I’ve only properly read ‘Screenplay’ by Syd Field but I’ve always been itching to make my own mistakes. If you’re just starting out then obviously you can learn the basics of submission but those books can’t really teach you the most important thing, which can only come from writing, finishing a project, submitting a project, starting a new project.
What’s a typical writing day?
I’m pretty disciplined – 8 til 5 – but that’s just so I can give myself plenty of circling time. Twitter and email siphons off a good chunk of my day and when I finally run out of excuses, I knuckle down. I write in concentrated bursts but I don’t ever have a word target. Sometimes it’s a page sometimes it’s ten.
Plug your latest book. What’s it about? Why’s it so great?
Everyone suspects there’s something sinister about email chain letters. STOP ME begins with an email chain letter from the Vacation Killer. It describes a girl and must be forwarded. If it ends up back in the killer’s inbox he won’t slit her throat. Of course, nobody takes it seriously to begin with until the jawbone of a prostitute is sent to the police. The missing prostitute fits the description in the email. But the real story of STOP ME is in the relationship between two men via a website.
John R Bookwalter claims to be the Vacation Killer and runs a website based around this alleged delusion. He’s never left the state of Louisiana and the Vacation Killer has killed around the globe. He’s dismissed by the police as a crank but claims to have Laura, the wife of Leo Sharpe. She disappeared in London and the Vacation Killer was suspected. However, her remains were never sent to the police and Leo wonders why – did the email get back to the Vacation Killer’s inbox?
But as everyone around Leo gives up on Laura ever being found Bookwalter is the only person talking about her in terms of her still being alive. A bizarre relationship ensues even though Bookwalter’s attempts at verisimilitude are patently the product of the information Leo feeds him. However, Bookwalter comes up with the most plausible theory of how she was kidnapped and Leo must decide whether he should accept Bookwalter’s invitation to fly to Louisiana to find out if there is any truth in what he’s saying. That’s what the title STOP ME refers to - more than the emails. It’s about being drawn submissively into something you know you shouldn’t.
The book examines the phenomena of Internet celebrity and the public’s ongoing fixation with serial murder. It’s populated by blue collar characters – ordinary people who participate in/are drawn into bizarre activities behind the façade of normality.
How much of what you do is:
a) formula dictated by the genre within which you write?
b) formula you developed yourself and stuck with?
c) as close to complete originality as it’s possible to get each time?
Only my first novel was a hundred percent me. I think after that I was trying to balance retaining subject matter and ideas that excited me with making them presentable to a readership. Luckily I found the thriller genre because it allows me to explore the sort of twisted, juicy, contemporary ideas that inspire me within an accessible framework.
After writing my first thriller my thinking was - would I be happy to be pigeonholed as a writer of this genre? That’s the reality for most writers and my answer was ‘yes.’ I think in today’s climate it’s a sensible approach for an author who wants to be energized by what he writes and earn a living at the same time.
This is my personal approach and obviously what works for me won’t be right for others. My instinct is to marry my predilections with pragmatism. I would love to have my first novel published but recognize why it probably wouldn’t make it past the committee of a publishing house. I’m also grateful that it wasn’t the first book I had published because I hadn’t really found my feet in terms of what sort of writer I was. This meant I would have probably struggled with the second book and my trajectory would have fizzled very quickly.
What’s your favorite sentence in all literature, and why?
A great question because it’s impossible to answer – are we talking hackles, hoot, goose bumps or chin stroke? I’d have to just take one at random:
‘My Name is Arthur Gordon Pym.’ First sentence from ‘The Narration Of Arthur Gordon Pym’ by Edgar Allan Poe. This story concerns a character with the same name as me suggesting cannibalism when adrift at sea. Lots are drawn and Richard Parker is eaten. The story was written in 1838 and in 1884 it happened for real. And the cabin boy who was eaten? Richard Parker.
It certainly had an effect on my travel arrangements.
What’s the best descriptive image in all literature?
Have gone for one that has always stuck with me - Bruce Robinson describing a fart as ‘a ghost of a sprout’ in ‘The Peculiar Memories Of Thomas Penman.’
Who’s the greatest stylist currently writing?
Of contemporary writers I’d say Chuck Palahniuk – on form - is pretty unique
Who’s the greatest plotter currently writing?
I’ve always loved the conceit of Hjortsberg’s ‘Falling Angel.’ I couldn’t outline my reason without giving away the ending to those who haven’t read it though. That must have been so much fun to write.
How much research is involved in each of your books?
I haven’t had a period of concentrated research for any of my books but that’s because I’ve so far written about subjects that I’m familiar with. My stories focus on ordinary people becoming embroiled in bizarre situations so I guess a lot of what I write is based on what my own personal reactions would be to those events. I’m also a big fan of Americana. My latest book involves Albanian gangsters, however, so that was one subject I needed to gather data for. It would be great to be able to spend more time immersing myself in more alien environments and getting a taste for an entirely new subject. Maybe in the future.
Where’d you get the idea for your main character?
There’s two main characters in STOP ME and I would say both of them are extensions of my own personality – my day-to-day personality and the side of me committed to dark mischief that only gets listened to when I’m at the keyboard.
Do you have a pain from childhood that compels you to write? If not, what does?
I can’t really think of anything in my childhood that compelled me to write. I had a stable and loving upbringing so who knows what ricocheted me towards the sort of dark subject matter that I’ve always got a kick out of. Maybe it’s still re-living that thrill of sneakily getting up to watch the forbidden late night horror movie – that addictive trespass on an entirely adult world. Ridiculous I know but my heart still sinks a little if I have to watch anything that doesn’t have an 18 certificate.
What’s the best idea for marketing a book you can do yourself?
Am just finding out with my debut but all the advice I receive from other writers concurs - utilize the internet but don’t forsake local publicity – radio and signings etc.
What’s your experience with being translated?
None in books yet although I’ve seen my TV material crop up on YouTube in all sorts of languages. Must re-examine my contracts…
Do you live entirely off your writing? How many books did you write before could make a living at it?
I’ve been lucky enough to have always been a professional writer and the past twenty years have been a mixture of exceptionally good years and stultifyingly bad years. I made the conscious choice to move from TV to novel writing ten years ago and it’s taken me until now to get my first into print. I hope to move forward with my next book but I have a realistic outlook on how things can transpire. I’ll always write though.
How many books did you write before you were published?
Eight. Four of which I would happily see in print. I won’t be reaching for old manuscripts now though. I still feel I have lots of new ideas to explore. I probably salvage bits of them without really knowing though.
What’s the strangest thing that happened to you on a book tour?
Will let you know. I’m touring airports in the UK this summer promoting British thrillers.
Should be an eye-opener.
What’s your weirdest idea for a book you’ll never get to publish?
My second novel – my agent described it as ‘supernatural pornography.’ Would have sold it to me.