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Interview: April 2, 2004

April 2, 2004

In this interview with's Suspense/Thriller Author Spotlight team (Carol Fitzgerald, Joe Hartlaub and Wiley Saichek), David Hewson talks about A SEASON FOR THE DEAD, his debut suspense novel featuring detective Nic Costa. He discusses his inspiration for this latest work, what he hopes to accomplish in "The Rome Series" and his busy work schedule.

BRC: A SEASON FOR THE DEAD crosses several genres. It is a novel of suspense, as the Italian police attempt to stop a serial killer. It is a psychological novel that slowly gives up clues as to the killer's motivation. It is, in some ways, a historical novel, as the reader is given a guided tour through the Roman churches and the paintings within that motivate and inspire the killer. It is a love story about the bittersweet romance between policeman Nic Costa and the enigmatic Sara Farnese. What was your inspiration for this novel? Did you know where it was headed from the start? Or how it would twist and turn?

DH: The idea for SEASON came into my head when I was in Rome one very hot August editing the final draft of my Venice novel, LUCIFER'S SHADOW. When I wasn't sweating --- literally --- over the computer, I wandered around the very local part of Rome where I was staying and was struck by the very vivid --- ghoulish, frankly --- depictions of martyrdoms on some of the small, early churches there. It prompted the question: Why does a religion based around love need such violent images? And with the success of Mel Gibson's Passion, I guess it's not an entirely historical question either. I also wanted to write another cop story, this time with a cop who was totally against type: good, young, fit, optimistic and trying to do the right thing. The two married up somewhere.

For me, the core of the novel is Nic's attempt to define what it is to lead a good life, at a time when he's dreading the loss of his father and facing the horrors of these crimes and his destructive relationship with Sara. I always know the eventual destination of a novel but the journey there is a little like a ride on London Transport: You're aware of where you're headed but you're never quite sure how or when you're going to get there. Writing has to be a journey of discovery for me too, one in which the characters dictate some of the moves; otherwise I'd be bored stiff.

BRC: A SEASON FOR THE DEAD is set in Rome. You demonstrate an intimate familiarity with the city, yet we understand that you were only there for a week for research! What did your research involve? What sparked your fascination with Rome?

DH: No, there was much, much more research than just that first week. I spend a couple of months in Rome each year, partly to go to language college there. It's a wonderful city, one I never tire of. Research for me consists of walking endless streets, making endless notes, and then trying to tie them together in the imagination into a story. You need to keep a tight rein on research. These works are fiction, and I really believe they shouldn't get bogged down in, say, how many minutes it really takes to walk from the Piazza Navona to the Campo dei Fiori. Classical history has fascinated me since I was a kid, though. The back story to these books is a serious and, I think, current one. These are decent cops trying to work out how to do good in a society where goodness isn't much valued by society at large, a very 21st century dilemma, I think. Rome being the home of law as we know it makes it an apposite place to set such tales. The food's pretty good too!

BRC: Nic Costa admires Caravaggio's work. What made you decide to give Costa this particular interest? Were you already an admirer of this artist?

DH: I wanted Nic to be different, as I said earlier. I hate clichés and preconceptions. The idea that every Italian cop is lazy, fat and ignorant is just plain wrong. I know enough people in Rome to be able to say there's a different generation out there, of young men and women who don't think the old ways. A lot of young Romans, for example, are vegetarians, as Nic is. I wanted him to stand out, and giving him the Caravaggio interest and that odd dad helped ram home the point. And yes Caravaggio is a stunning artist, and one who's brilliantly displayed in Rome, often in the original locations, if you look carefully. He was also asking a lot of awkward questions about the real meaning of religion that still have a modern resonance, which is why the patricians in the Vatican hated him so much.

BRC: Much of A SEASON FOR THE DEAD revolves around The Vatican. The first death occurs there; much of the impetus of the story has its origin in the Banca Lombardia scandal; and the status of Vatican City as a sovereign city-state within the city of Rome both impedes and propels the investigation. How did you research the Vatican's inner workings?

DH: Now that is easy. You just read. There are any number of books out there depicting the workings of the Vatican. And the Calvi scandal, which is still unresolved --- the "suicide" is now officially a murder --- shows there are probably many more tales to be told, too.

BRC: We understand that A SEASON FOR THE DEAD is the first of a series of what you are calling "The Rome Series." The second novel in the series, THE VILLA OF MYSTERIES, will be published in the U.S. in Spring '05, and you have a third, THE SACRED CUT, finished and scheduled for publication by Delacorte in Fall '05. Can you tell us a bit about those books? Is The Rome Series open-ended, or do you have a definite number of novels in mind?

DH: The second book in a series needs to look forward and lay down the foundations for enough interest to stretch beyond a couple of titles. My way of tackling this was to extend the character range, so there's a lot of Nic in THE VILLA OF MYSTERIES, but also much more of that lovely mad pathologist Teresa Lupo, a new cop, Gianni Peroni, and further development of Leo Falcone. At the end of the book I think we begin to see there's the making of something unusual there: a team based on mutual respect of each other, and mutual dislike for the state of the world.

In my own small way, I'm trying to break a little new ground with this series. For me, a lot of crime fiction breaks down into two categories, both of which are fine but come under the heading of "books I don't want to write." "Bloodless crime" is the classic Agatha Christie-style tale in which people get murdered, but murder is a catalyst to an intellectual puzzle. They're not really dead; sometimes they're not that alive in the first place. That was OK fifty years ago when violent crime was rare and outside the experience of most of us. Today we all know victims. Some of us even know people who've been murdered. I couldn't write bloodless crime in that environment; I'd feel I was insulting the true victims.

The other school is what I think of as "tough guy crime." This posits a world that is neatly divided between good and bad, and all the good people need to win is the right man and the right hardware. In this kind of story the only way you meet the words "moral" and "ambivalence" is if they happen to be the name of the beautiful girl the hero's dating ("Pass me the Uzi, Moral, I got another bad guy to waste.") Not my cup of tea.

Nic and crew inhabit a 21st century world that seems more real to me, one in which it's getting harder and harder all the time not only to work out what's right and wrong, but how you should respond to those challenges as an individual. This really starts to come into its own with THE SACRED CUT, which is a very contemporary story with historical leanings. I recently signed up to write three more installments of this series, bringing it up to a minimum of six, and it feels open-ended to me right now. That's not to say the cast won't change with the books, though. This is not a static bunch of detectives sitting in the same office waiting for a different crime to descend on them. They're much too awkward for that.

BRC: How will Nic Costa's character grow in upcoming books?

DH: He's getting older, hopefully wiser, a little tougher and having to cope with all the problems and temptations growing up involves. He's also going to have to face two big challenges: holding down a proper relationship, and fighting off the urge to cut corners and get cynical as the years and the cases wear on. Fortunately, he has great company to remind him when he starts to wander.

BRC: Another of your novels, LUCIFER'S SHADOW, featuring a different protagonist, will be published in the United States by Delacorte this August. What can you share with us about that book? Do you have plans for any other "stand alone" titles?

DH: LUCIFER is a very different, almost literary, tale set in Venice during two time periods: the early 17th century --- when Vivaldi was there --- and the present. It tells two related stories of two young people facing the same problems and the same temptations. Originally it was going to be a completely contemporary piece about someone unearthing an old manuscript.

But to do that properly I realised I had to create the back story of that manuscript itself, which meant writing historical fiction, something I'd never done before. It turned out to be so much fun I combined the two. One of the ideas the book explores is the destructive nature of genius, which has always fascinated me. Another is the question: do successive generations grow smarter, or are we just the same dumb/bright people separated by nothing more than the years? I'm sure I will write another stand alone some day --- I have notes for more than one. But Nic Costa and crew will find themselves in Venice in book 4 of this series, which I'm working on now, and meet up with some characters from Lucifer there. It's pretty interesting for me revisiting these people again, and seeing them through Nic's eyes.

BRC: Can you tell us about your work habits? Do you write every day? And how many hours per day do you normally write?

DH: We live in wild countryside near the English Channel. At seven each morning I walk my little dog, then come back and sit down at the computer. My first job of the day is to read what I wrote the previous day, to check it and get in the mood. Then I work through till 12:30, take a brief lunch, have the luxury of a nap if I can, and get back to the keyboard around 2. I work on the book Monday through Friday and take weekends off for journalism and messing around in the garden (which is pretty big --- we're having a one-acre vineyard put in at the moment, which could well be the daftest thing I've done in many a year). I guess I'm at the computer eight hours a day but how much of that is writing, how much editing, or handling e-mail or mooching around the web trying to avoid work is hard to say. A book is a little under a year's work for me, with the final edit always, always, done somewhere in Italy over a couple of weeks.

BRC: In addition to your novels, you write a column for the Sunday Times (London). What are the advantages and disadvantages of writing fiction and nonfiction at the same time? Was it always your plan to write fiction?

DH: I left school at 17. We were a pretty poor family so there was no chance of getting to college. The only way I could earn money by writing was joining a local newspaper. I got pretty ambitious and was on the staff of the London Times in my early twenties. I loved journalism and have so many friends from the newspaper world. But writing fiction was what I always wanted to do, though it didn't start to work until I was in my forties. For me journalism and fiction never cross. A different David Hewson writes each. Fiction is about being a good liar, convincing readers of a world I've created. Journalism has to be about accuracy, truth and honesty, all of which are important in fiction, but principally on a cerebral level, not in the detail. Although whether it was David H the journalist or David H the novelist saying that I'm not quite sure.

BRC: What writers have inspired you throughout your career?

DH: In the little town in Yorkshire where I grew up I was lucky in that the library had a fantastic collection of American literature. So I grew up reading Hemingway, Steinbeck, Ambrose Bierce, Ray Bradbury, Ed McBain, Dos Passos and the like. To me they were so much more real than English novelists like Thomas Hardy because they had such narrative wit, style and brevity. The English have a tendency to overwrite, and I feel lucky that I had a lot of lessons at an early age about how to avoid that sin.

BRC: Do you have favorite historical or suspense novelists that you read regularly?

DH: I read against type, which is another way of saying that writing crime tends to damage your habit of reading it. I'm a sucker for Robert Graves (I, CLAUDIUS and CLAUDIUS THE GOD), Mary Renault's classical works, and I still get a kick out of Conan Doyle. The last nonfiction work I read was a biography of Constantine, the emperor who first made Rome officially Christian. Unfortunately, one side effect of writing for a living is that you spend less time reading, but I have a stack of stuff in my in tray --- American and British --- I want to get through before the end of the year.