Article published on June 12, 2018.
The Old Religion is the latest crime novel from Newcastle-born author Martyn Waites. Martyn also writes the Brennan and Esposito series under the pen name Tania Carver. Set in Cornwall, The Old Religion is the first in a new series featuring ex-cop Tom Killgannon.
Paul Burke: Do you wear a dress when writing as Tania Carver? Only joking! I was a bit surprised when I heard people really ask this.
Martyn Waites: Yeah, loads of people. And they all thought they were being original. They weren’t.
Paul Burke: The Old Religion sees the return of Martyn Waites as author, as you recent novels have been written under the pen name Tania Carver. You say that you know when an idea is a Carver or a Waites. Can you explain that for us please? What does an alter-ego allow you to achieve?
Martyn Waites: Well I started writing the Tanias to a very specific brief. They were contemporary commercial thrillers, primarily aimed at women, and told in a fast, no-nonsense style. Not really my own style. I looked on it like Donald Westlake did with his Richard Stark alter ego. A recognisably different person writing different books. But occupying the same body. I don’t know whether I can actually articulate when an idea is for Tania or Martyn but I can feel it. There are things that get heightened or pulled back in the mix. And some ideas can be treated better as one or the other.
PB: You’ve written under two names; different characters, different locations, different series and standalone – The Old Religion is your first Cornish novel, introducing Tom Killgannon. Do you think characters run their course or is your writing driven by exploring new avenues?
MW: Bit of both, really. I think the Tanias have run their course. I mean, never say never, but at the moment I can’t see myself returning to them. I like to go forward not look back. That said, my previous series under my own name, the Joe Donovan series, I think there’s still a bit of mileage in and I wouldn’t mind going back to them some day. I still think about him and wonder what he’s up to now. Another reason for ending a series is, of course, financial. If a publisher decides they don’t want any more or drops you and no one else will pick it up then it has to, by necessity, disappear. But Tom Killgannon’s where I am at the moment. I hope I can spend a lot of time in his company because I’m genuinely enjoying them.
PB: Did acting and working with other people’s words help when you became a writer? It must be very different going from a collaborative environment to a dictatorship.
MW: A dictatorship? Clearly you’ve been asking around about me… Yes, it was difficult at first. I always used to say I was at my happiest in a rehearsal room, working on a play with other actors, all bouncing ideas off each other, making something organic grow. And to go from that to sitting on your own can be very difficult. If I’d done something brilliant in rehearsal, or even on stage (on those very rare occasions that I would actually do anything brilliant) then everyone would see it. If I thought I’d come up with a good line I’d have to phone someone up and tell them. Or I did at first. Until friends stopped taking my calls.
I’m not sure working on anyone else’s words made much of a difference. But I used to look at a script as a whole rather than just what my part was in it like other actors did. That’s not a good way to work.
PB: Tom Killgannon is in jail at the beginning of the next novel (that’s not a spoiler for The Old Religion). Without giving away any secrets (I know you won’t!), how does an idea like that become a novel?
MW: Tom in jail? Quite easily, really. I’m not one of those writers who has trouble thinking up ideas. I could have several in a week that I could get a book out of. The hard bit is sitting down for a year and turning that into something people want to read. I start with an idea or an image, something like that, then the “what ifs” start forming. I want to know what that image means or what consequences the idea has for my characters. The book grows from that. I kind of plan in sections as I go on, auditioning voices as I go and seeing if they’re interesting enough to invest some time with. I build the novel from that. The start of a novel is a question. You should discover the answer as you write it.
PB: The Old Religion features County Lines and European funding and community/family values are questioned. Is contextualising crime important in your novels?
MW: Yes. If I’m setting a novel in the present day, in “our” world then I want readers to be able to identify that and share in it. I think all writers have an obligation to do that and not ignore things that are inconvenient to them. Not wanting to sound all grand and twattish, I think fiction can help make sense of the world, our world, or at least give us some space to examine it.
PB: The Old Religion draws on the horror genre, but it’s very much grounded in reality. Did you consciously avoid straying into horror? Is it very different writing horror?
MW: I didn’t want anything supernatural in the book. That wouldn’t have been right. The threat of the supernatural, though, that’s different. However, once I’d thought of the idea and the setting, a kind of gothic noir approach really appealed. In fact, I couldn’t have done it any other way.
Writing horror isn’t that much different, I don’t think. You’re still working on the same things, characters in extreme situations. The scares work if the reader is invested in the character. If it means something that they’re going to be hurt. Or killed. That’s a lot like crime fiction, in that respect.
PB: Forensic science, technology and modern policing methods only feature off the page in the novel. The Old Religion instead relies on action and character. Was that a conscious decision or one driven by the story?
MW: Conscious decision. After eight Tania Carver novels that were all police procedurals I wanted to ditch that approach. I wanted police involvement kept to a minimum and any kind of procedural stuff to be tangentially involved at best. Like when the characters watch the progress of the police investigation into the missing student on the TV in the pub. That was as near as I wanted to police to be. And also the story dictates what you write. There was no place for procedural stuff in it.
PB: Am I right in saying you’re not religious? And yet, you are interested in the folk horror revival. What’s in it for you?
MW: I’m not religious in the slightest. I’ve never heard a convincing argument for a deity and I doubt I ever will. Religions are, in my experience, just systems of control and I want no part of them. The folk horror rival is completely different. I think it’s just great fun. It’s something that I became consciously aware of when I moved to Devon a few years ago. I felt it to be a much more accurate portrayal of the countryside than the hackneyed bucolic version we’re usually presented with. This led me to reading and watching plenty of other Folk Horror films and books. I found that these ideas chimed with mine. I also think that Folk Horror is a way of coping with an uncertain present and future. It does make the case that there is more to heaven and earth and I may not agree but I wouldn’t mind being convinced. That would be fun.
PB: The story lends itself to a secluded/isolated location, but did you consciously move from the city to the remote, coastal location as a sort of backlash against the city domination of the crime genre?
MW: Again, it was because of the story I wanted to tell. It wouldn’t have worked in the city. It had to be in a secluded rural location. I remember touring round Cornwall looking for locations and finding what I thought was a great one. Then sitting in my room in a B&B that night reading Robert Aickman while the night went about its business outside. It fitted perfectly.
PB: The Charles Walton blood ritual murder in 1945 was an influence for the novel; can you tell us a little bit about that?
MW: You have done your research! Yes, it was something I looked into a great deal when writing The Old Religion. Charles Walton was a kind of village outsider, itinerant worker in the village of Lower Quinton, Warwickshire. He was murdered on 14th February, 1945, the day of the pagan festival Imbolc. It was assumed he was a local witch who had made fields barren by blasting his natterjack toads across them among other spells. It was assumed he was ritualistically murdered and his blood left to soak into the earth to replenish the soil and give a good crop that year. Despite Fabian of the Yard turning up and trying to solve the case, no one was ever brought to trial for it. It became a major touchstone for the novel.
PB: EU funding for Cornwall features in the novel and you’re not shy about expressing your views on Brexit in the interview at the back of the book. Do you think it’s important for crime novels to be contemporary and to address such issues head on?
MW: Oh yes. Definitely. I think, as I said earlier, that writers have an obligation to do that. And no, I’ve never been shy about expressing my views on anything, never mind Brexit!
PB: Your influences when you began writing were American, but a lot has changed in British crime fiction since then, not least your own writing. I wonder what you think of the state of things now?
MW: I still read both American and British crime novels but I’m not as in thrall to the Americans as I once was. I think we’ve caught up a lot over here. I still go to American books for noir voices, especially Southern Noir. That’s probably my favourite sub-genre. But I do worry that we’ve become too formulaic as a genre now. I’m always waiting for an exciting new voice to surprise me.
PB: Why is Tom Killgannon in jail in the next novel? I know, no chance!
MW: None at all!
PB: What are you reading at the moment? Is there an author you would recommend to our readers?
MW: Megan Abbot, Laura Lippman, Alison Gaylin and Christa Faust are brilliant. There are loads over here that I could recommend but I’d probably miss someone out. But I do think Mick Herron is knocking it out of the park.
PB: This is a bit random, but have you ever thought of doing a graphic novel?
MW: Yep. I was in talks a few years ago with Vertigo and other companies but unfortunately nothing came of that. I’m a lifelong comic fan and would love to write for comics. So if anyone from a comic company is reading this wants to invite me to pitch…
Our thanks to Martyn Waites for taking part in this Q&A.
The Old Religion by Martyn Waites
Zaffre 9781785764318 hbk June 2018