Give us a quick pitch for the book.
A killer goes on the rampage in a quiet Sussex village before apparently taking his own life. Only Julia Trent knows that the gunman wasn't acting alone, but after being chased and almost killed, no one wants to believe her account of the massacre. Joining forces with Craig Walker, a journalist and son of one of the victims, she sets out to discover the truth. What she finds is that the killing didn't start on that cold day in January, and worst of all, it won’t end there…
How is it doing so far? Have you gotten some good press?
It’s selling well, I believe, and the reaction so far has been very positive. Some great reviews in the national and local press, and from a lot of well-respected crime fiction websites and bloggers. Knowing how many books are out there competing for attention, I’d have been delighted with half a dozen reviews, but so far it’s had about twenty.
Here in the U.S., we’ve grown accustomed to seeing the aftermath of mass killings on the evening news. I found the massacre in Skin and Bones so disturbing because Americans don’t usually think of such things happening in England. Your characters mention other (presumably real) shootings that have occurred. How common are these incidents in your country?
Shooting sprees have occurred in the UK. I'm glad to say they're extremely rare events, but perhaps all the more shocking for that reason.
How did you avoid ending up with a “ripped from the headlines” feel?
I think that's mostly down to the bizarre way in which this story originated. The entire opening sequence, where Julia enters the village and gets chased by the gunman, came from an incredibly vivid dream. I woke up with every detail right there in place, and frankly I couldn't believe my luck! (Normally when I get an idea in a dream, it falls apart under closer examination, but this one didn't.) From that point onwards, I quite deliberately didn't look too closely at any real incidents, either in Britain or elsewhere, although I used the basic structure of the official report into the Hungerford massacre when putting together the police report in my novel.
Tell us how you came up with your protagonists, Julia Trent and Craig Walker.
Because of the way the opening sequence came about, Julia was there from the beginning. The essence of her character developed quite naturally during those first chapters, where she's already being pushed to the limit. With Craig, it wasn't quite such an organic approach. His character took longer to develop, and actually changed a fair bit during the various drafts.
One of the things I love about Julia is her inner strength. She has experienced terrible things and lives in fear of more, but still she persists in uncovering the truth. Was that mix of strength and terror difficult to get down on paper?
It was a tricky balancing act at times. If she's too scared she’ll come across as drippy and unsympathetic; make her too strong and you risk losing plausibility. In terms of fine-tuning to get the right mix, I owe an awful lot to my editor and my agent, both of whom gave me some very useful advice on that score. It also helped that most of my first readers were female, including my wife, my sisters and my friend Claire. They made it a lot less daunting to create a female protagonist.
Skin and Bones has three main villains (and a small host of hired goons). All three are complex characters and, as much as I wanted to hate them, I found myself empathizing with each of them to a certain degree. How did those characters evolve as you wrote?
I’m glad to hear you empathized with them, as that’s exactly what happens to me during the writing process. I always set out to create bad guys with no redeeming features at all, and then inevitably find myself bringing out their more human, sympathetic qualities.
There are a couple of gruesome scenes involving an electric saw and some nylon cord. As seen through Julia’s eyes, the violence is horrific but it somehow never feels gratuitous. That level of violence is necessary because of what it reveals about the character inflicting it, but did you have to struggle with these scenes?
Not at all! I find the scenes with a lot of action and violence are by far the easiest to write. The ones I really struggled with were those that explored the hint of romance between Julia and Craig. In fact, quite a lot of those scenes ended up on the cutting room floor.
I think Skin and Bones will be well received in the States. Any news on when it’s coming out over here?
That’s very kind of you to say so, but at the moment it doesn’t have a US publisher. I'm hoping that if it does well enough in the UK, it might generate some interest in America. My UK publishers hold World English rights, so I’m sure they’ll do their best to get a US deal if they can.
Who are your main influences as a writer?
Stephen King was a major influence during my teens. Hemingway and Graham Greene are the two literary writers that I idolized, and in terms of crime writing specifically, I’d single out John Sandford, Michael Connelly and Martin Cruz Smith, although there are many, many other writers who I read both for enjoyment and for what I can learn from them.
What were the last three books you read?
Outliers, by Malcolm Gladwell, whose writing is so beautiful he can make anything fascinating; One Under by Graham Hurley, part of a great series of police procedurals set just along the coast from me in Portsmouth, and Gone Baby Gone by Dennis Lehane. I've only recently discovered his work, and after reading just two of his books I'm in awe of him.
Tell us a little about your current project.
The next book is provisionally called Terror’s Reach, and it’s about a criminal gang that seizes control of a wealthy island off the Sussex coast. It introduces what I'm hoping will be a series character: a former cop, estranged from his family and forced to live under a false identity after an undercover operation went disastrously wrong.
Thanks for taking the time to answer my questions. I’m looking forward to your next novel.
Note to readers: Even though Skin and Bones is not yet available in a US edition, it can be ordered from Amazon. Just click on the link in my introductory paragraph. And be sure to visit Tom Bale's website for news and sample chapters.