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The Steel Dagger Shortlist – Mark Oldfield

Every year the CWA announce the shortlisted authors for their Dagger Awards. This year is no different and last month the CWA Ian Fleming Steel Dagger Awards were announced. Four books that signify the best in thriller fiction sponsored by Ian Fleming Publications Ltd. Over the next four weeks we’ll be looking forensically at what makes these books great.

Starting off with the authors! We’ve interviewed all four authors to find out what inspired them, how they think the thriller genre has changed and how easy it is for them to kill off their characters! We kick off with Mark Oldfield author of The Sentinel.

Who or what inspired you to write? Did you always want to be a writer?

Yes, I wanted to be a writer since my mid-teens and when I was twenty, took off to live in Paris and Spain, armed only with a typewriter, three reams of paper and a battered Frederick Forsyth novel. In my teens, I’d worked my way through a large number of books by Zola and had every intention of turning out a vast body of work myself. Until I found out how cheap drink was in Franco’s Spain.

Naturally, life got on the way and thank God it did, because experience provides the lifeblood of my writing. Back then in the seventies, I was an eclectic reader but a seminal moment came in 1977 when I was travelling from Spain to Paris by rail. I got on the train two hours early, since Hendaye Station wasn’t much fun at ten at night, and found an English copy of 100 Years of Solitude under the seat. I read that book all the way to Paris and when we got there about 6.30 in the morning, I went and sat in a park to finish it off.

That book inspired me in so many ways but inspiration also came from people I met along the way. Travelling to Spain and being a frequent visitor over a long period of time, I became fascinated by the Spanish Civil War, by the terrible injustice of it and the institutional malice of Franco’s regime. Learning more about the experiences of people I met, talking to those who’d lived through those times, was an eye opener. It also taught me that practically everyone has a story to tell, and that they may have a story that someone else can tell as well.

How attached do you get to the characters in your novels? Do you find it hard to kill characters off? What kind of characters do you most enjoy writing?

I feel a great attachment to my characters. Even though I had a good idea of who was going to die in The Sentinel right from the beginning, the story took me by surprise at the end when one character died who I’d imagined surviving. I think the important thing in killing a character is to make sure their death is meaningful: that they die believing something or trying to do something so that the manner of their death makes a statement about them, the killer or the plot. Attaching significance to their loss has an impact on the reader.

I love writing villains. They get the best lines (in my work at least), they can take liberties and they are relentlessly provocative. Yet they also act according to their own internal logic: their actions aren’t random or atypical, they are credible and make sense within the character’s personality. When I can get that right, the most villainous character can behave outrageously and the reader will still empathise with them. That said, some of my nicer characters are pretty flawed as people. I think it’s important not to make any of them boring.

Ian Fleming said that to make a good thriller ‘one just has to turn the page’ – do you agree?

Of course, you need the reader to want more, and to make them keep turning the page. To do that I think, involves working on storytelling: creating a world which is credible and in which the actions of the characters make sense. Each time the reader turns that page, I want them to find something new and surprising or at least entertaining. When there’s action, I want it to be for a purpose, not just to fill some space. Drawing the reader into the author’s created world is key. And to do that effectively, the author has to be there first, to know and own that world.

How has the thriller genre changed in the post 9/11 world?

9/11 highlighted the potential for unleashing terror and disaster using means which horrified us, shocked us to the core. It was a spectacle that was so big and unexpected that it shocked a society well used to spectacular things.

For writers, the stakes were upped, because when something so traumatic happens, there is an impulse to use it, to embrace that destructive innovation and quite possibly, to surpass it. There are also implications for characters as well. Villains usually have a motive for what they do. A nihilistic terrorist is harder to do convincingly than describing a corrupt policeman I think.

I think that no matter what period one writes in, the key is to use the means and objects that were available at the time and to deploy those in a convincing and immersing story.

What is the strangest thing a fan has ever said to you / your strangest signing experience?

When the Sentinel came out, it got a lot of support from a website called books4spain. As part of their promotion of the book, the website held a raffle with the prize being a hardback copy of the book.
The prize was won by a Swedish bloke who I’d known for years from the Fiesta of San Fermin in Pamplona. I wrote him a fulsome message in the book and for fun, turned the a’s and o’s into faux Swedish characters – ö å and so on.

Having spent a long time ending the dedication with a few Swedish phrases gleaned from an online translator, I posted the book. For weeks after, the Swede lambasted me for not sending the book and for weeks I protested that I had sent it and maybe it would arrive soon. It did not.

We now fast forward to June of this year when I took my mother up to Scotland to see relatives and to celebrate her 90th birthday. My Goddaughter’s husband had been a keen Sentinel fan and encouraged several of his friends to buy the book. He rolled up at the house with an armful of books which I was pleased to sign. The last one, he explained, belonged to a friend who was something of a cheapskate and had bought the book on EBay. I opened the book ready to sign it and was confronted by the cod Swedish message I had written about 8 months before and which had disappeared somewhere between Tunbridge Wells and Gothenburg.

Currently, the case of the purloined Swedish Sentinel remains open. The Swedish prize-winner denies putting the book on Ebay and the Scottish purchaser is now doubly happy to have a signed copy and to possess a book at the heart of an enigma. Even the author is unhappy since the Swede now threatens to send him a tin of fermented herring (no, not red) by post, a threat so vile it may have to be included in a plot at some stage.

What is your favourite pastime when you are not writing?

I play guitar, mainly jazz these days although I used to play in a C&W band a long time ago, playing Country and Western nights in pubs in the South Yorkshire pit villages. That was during the miners’ strike. Imagine explaining why you’re wearing a Stetson and spurs to a group of coppers who are scouring the countryside for flying pickets and you’ll see why I switched to playing jazz.

Find out more about the other Dagger shortlisted authors – read our interview with Robert Wilson.

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