Saturday, 11 February 2012

QnA with Stav

A couple of days ago I posted a review of Stav Sherez' new novel, A Dark Redemption. Today, I'm posting an interview we did with him over at Crimesquad.

First, here's a wee bit of detail about the man himself ...

Stav Sherez lives in London. He is the author of the CWA shortlisted The Devil’s Playgroundand The Black Monastery. He spent five years as a music journalist, mainly for the cult music magazine Comes with a Smile. He has also written for the Daily Telegraph, The Catholic Herald and Zembla amongst others.

Crimesquad: What makes a truly great crime/thriller novel?

Stav: Well, that's a very hard question to answer but, for me, the two main things that make great crime novels stand out is character and setting. The protagonists have to be flawed, conflicted, and engaging. If we believe in them, we believe in the story no matter what strange places the plot may take us to.

Setting is what allows an infinite number of variations on a small set of themes. There are only so many ways you can murder someone in the first chapter. The best crime novels draw back the curtains on hidden worlds and veiled history, and use a single act of violence to unfurl the secrets and lies we keep locked deep in our hearts. Mood and atmosphere elevate the best crime novels, creating a world you can smell, see and touch, a deep and vivid immersion of the senses.

The other thing that I've always noticed about my favourite crime novels is that they all, in their own individual ways, place history in the crosshairs, and chart the intersection of public events with private lives over time and distance.

Crimesquad: Raymond Chandler once wrote of crime fiction that the "mystery and the solution of the mystery are only what I call 'the olive in the Martini'". What’s your view?

Stav: I used to more or less agree with Chandler on that. I saw crime novels as deft Trojan horses through which the best writers smuggled in social, moral, and political concerns, but I don't think it's quite that simple any more. I believe that the mystery is an essential part of the Martini, physically indistinguishable from all the other parts. It's the key that unlocks the world behind the world and the motor that charges every scene and sentence with portent and suspense.

Crimesquad: Events in ‘A Dark Redemption’ deal with the recent history in the African country of Uganda. Of all the nations in this troubled continent why choose this one?

Stav: That's a very good question. There's certainly no shortage of dramatic, blood-torn backdrops to choose from. I spent six months learning what I could about modern African history but the more I read about Uganda's Joseph Kony and his Lord's Resistance Army (LRA), the more fascinated, intrigued, and appalled I became. I couldn't understand how one man ruling over an army of abducted children could hold half a country hostage for twenty years. And I began to wonder about what happened to these child soldiers after they'd been rescued – how do you go back to being a boy after you've spent your childhood killing men?

Crimesquad: You’ve moved from writing standalone novels to writing a series. What prompted this shift in approach?

Stav: I always felt like I was only beginning to know my characters by the time each of my previous two books came to an end. When I started working on 'A Dark Redemption' I didn't plan it as the start of a series but, about halfway through the writing, I knew there was much more to the stories of Carrigan and Miller than I could tell in just one book. By the time I got to the final scene of A Dark Redemption I wanted to know what happens to them next!

Crimesquad: After setting books in Holland and Greece, you’ve finally come home to London. What were the challenges in setting your novel against a backdrop that many of your readers will know well?

Stav: When I started writing ‘The Devil's Playground’ I was 29 and I'd grown bone-weary of London. I'd lived here for most of my life and I'd gradually stopped seeing it. It became a sort of invisible wallpaper back-dropping my life. But this particular story needed to be set in London and I soon realised that it was a London as strange and exotic to me as any far-flung destination. Writing about the city's underground immigrant communities allowed me into a hidden London, a city we pass by every day but rarely ever notice.

Crimesquad: Your two leads, Carrigan and Miller, have a difficult start in their working relationship. How do you see this developing?

Stav: Well, let's just say it's going to have its fair share of ups and downs....I'm not sure I want to give away any more at this stage!

Crimesquad: There are a couple of fascinating twists in the book. Did these grow out of the organic process of writing the book, or do you go for a detailed plot?

Stav: I never have a detailed outline before I start writing, only a vague idea about the first 40 pages or so. I believe writing should be a process of discovery for the writer as much as for the reader and I always tell prospective writers to write what you don't know you know and trust your subconscious. I remember struggling with the end of part two of A Dark Redemption and then, as I was redrafting it, the twist you mention just popped into my head and it was as much of a surprise to me as I hope it will be to the readers. It was one of those rare moments when all the disparate ends of the plot suddenly click together and you feel a chill run down the back of your neck.

Crimesquad: There was a gap of five years between ‘The Devil’s Playground’ and ‘The Black Monastery’ and three years between that and ‘A Dark Redemption’. Do you find writing a slow process and is it a conscious decision not to release a novel every year? Do we have a long wait for the next instalment of Carrigan and Miller? (No pressure…)

Stav: I would love to be able to write a book every year but it never seems to work out that way! I normally write a first draft in six weeks and then spend two years re-working it. I'm a compulsive rewriter and it's the part of the process I enjoy the most. Slowly, you see the book taking shape, like a sculptor chipping away at a block of marble to reveal the hidden face beneath. Often, it's only on the second or third draft that I begin to understand where the book is headed, and each draft allows me to add more layers of detail, characterisation, theme, and suspense. Having said that, I'm working longer hours now and the next book in the series, ‘Eleven Days Before Christmas’, is almost finished and should be out next year.

Crimesquad: What is your favourite crime/thriller novel of all time?

Stav: Man, that's the toughest question of all! But let's say you've still got that gun pointed at my head, then I'd have to pick 'The Mask of Dimitrios' by Eric Ambler. It's a searing fever-dream of a novel that ranges from the fires of Smyrna to the shores of the Bosporus. A jaded crime writer slumming it in Istanbul asks to see the dead body of a notorious bandit. He becomes fascinated by the lurid details of the man's life and decides to find out more about the mysterious Dimitrios, in the process uncovering a Europe poised between two wars, riddled with intrigue, betrayal, and unchecked genocide. The writing is atmospheric, stony, and laconic. It's a wonderful spy thriller, an intriguing mystery, a report on a continent about to crack and roar with the machinery of war, and an existential investigation on the fascination of violence, on why we write and why we read crime novels.

As I said earlier in the week, A Dark Redemption is a wonderful read. Go on, treat yourself, you know you want to.


  1. it's a nice interview but you should've given us an intro on Stav, Michael, because I don't know anything about him.

  2. fair comment, Dez. (that's what the edit button is for, eh?)

  3. Can we first get out of the way that this guy looks just a wee bit like Dave Stewart from Eurythmics. Seriously, Michael, I thought maybe I'd converted you after my post yesterday. :))

    Now this:

    "The best crime novels draw back the curtains on hidden worlds and veiled history, and use a single act of violence to unfurl the secrets and lies we keep locked deep in our hearts. Mood and atmosphere elevate the best crime novels, creating a world you can smell, see and touch, a deep and vivid immersion of the senses."

    Well stated and I completely agree. I also like it when there is a historical element at play. Kind of like showing the dark side of our bright history sometimes.

    This novel really intrigues me. Thanks for doing the interview.

  4. Not going to happen, LG - but now that you mention the resemblance ...

  5. I can see a resemblance to Matthew Broderick.

  6. Seriously, Ricky? Mind you, I can't see past all that hair. Stav does good hair.