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David Hewson Interview

Las Vegas, October 17, 2003
© 2003 italian-mysteries.com

David Hewson’s A SEASON FOR THE DEAD is the first in a new series.
Our Carlo Vennarucci interviewed him at the
2003 Bouchercon World Mystery Conference in Las Vegas.


David Hewson Author Page


Q: How did you come up with the idea for your new contemporary mystery series set in Rome?
Hewson: I have this habit that whenever I finish a book I go somewhere to read the final manuscript and I always make sure it is not the place the book is set. When I finished LUCIFER'S SHADOW, set in Venice, I said, well, where shall I read the manuscript. I hadn't been to Rome in years and years. The last time I went, I didn't like it very much. I often find that places I don't like much in the first instance I later come to love. I just went back there and it was August, so that was a big mistake, and I had this tiny little apartment and it was so hot and I was finishing off the Venice book. More and more as I wandered around Rome, I just kept thinking, I'd love to set a book here. You know sometimes in some cities, stories just kind of just seep out of the stones. You look at places and the way people interact with each other and they're fantastically interesting and the Romans are like that. I can just sit in Rome and watch Romans talking to each other for hours on end because they are such interesting, talkative, abrasive, friendly people. And it just came out, because I just thought I've got to write a book here.
Q: Now I see why your book was set during the August heat wave.
Hewson: Yes, that was the week I was there. It was so, so hot; and all the Romans kept saying to me, "it's really cool this week, you should get the normal weather."
In the beginning it wasn't going to be a series and I wrote that as a one-off book; and then when I got to the end of it, I thought these characters have so much in them that there's a lot of potential there. I had a new editor and she read it and the first thing she said was, "I know you never thought of a series before, but please do this as a series." I hadn't planned it, but I'm really glad it worked out that way.
Q: Tell us about the birth of Nic Costa, as your protagonist?
Hewson: I wanted to do a cop who was a good guy, an unfinished, slightly naive, innocent person and one who was against the type. You know we assume that Roman cops fit this kind of stereotype. They like a beer, they're cynical, they're corruptible -- it is a stereotype. I wanted to write a character who was in transition, who had a lot of personal problems he couldn't quite face up to; the principal one being the fact that his father's going to die. And I wanted to pursue the idea of a person who's trying to find out what his life is about. He came out of that. You know he had such an interesting background. Rome is not the place that many people imagine; it's a very secular city. There are also active Communists there. Communist politicians have played a very interesting part in Roman history over the last decade or so. So I just felt that I wanted to do someone who was not a stereotype, a very unexpected character.
Q: How did you carry out the research for this book, for example, the Church references?
Hewson: Obviously on the Vatican and the history of the Church, I am by profession a journalist and research is what I do for a living. I just walked around the churches. I have always been fascinated by this dichotomy that the Church is about love and peace and purity; but the early Church had this obsession with martyrdom and you probably know some of the churches in Rome where such as Stefano Rotonda where you see these very very violent depictions of grisly deaths on the walls which have very little historical basis. Most historians now think those people probably were martyred, but they certainly weren't martyred in the ways they were historically depicted.
Q: Did you extensively research the Rome Questura?
Hewson: As far as the Questura's concerned, you face a real dilemma when you are writing any book in Italy that involves the police force. You have to ask yourself -- do I actually want to go into the complexities of the Italian police system? Which is horrendous with the Carabinieri, the State Police, the Finance Police, and the D.I.A.(anti-Mafia police). I think like most writers, I took one step back and said, I am not going to go into those complexities; you can't go into the mechanics of it because they will overwhelm the reader. A lot of people will not actually want to know how these different agencies interact.
Q: Is this something you may get into as the series continues?
Hewson: You will find that in book #2, there is an interaction between the State Police and the D.I.A., but I don't want to go too deep into that. For one thing, most Italians don't understand how it all works. The logical thing for me as a non-Italian is to rationalize the police forces so you have fewer agencies; the Italian answer is, let's have another agency.
Q: How did you get your insights into the operations within the Vatican?
Hewson: Some of the story draws on the Marcinkus affair, the Vatican banking scandal of the early 1980s. The rest of it I just got from talking to people in Rome, friends I knew there, who could give me insights and knew how that thing worked. But I do emphasize it's fiction. I did get some reviews from some Catholic critics when the book came out swearing it was anti-Catholic which sort of puzzled me -- I thought they were over-reacting there. I don't think it's critical of the Vatican or anyone else. It's a story set in a certain milieu.
Research is research -- you basically walk around and talk to people, read books and do what you can.
Q: Do you have a passion for art and for Caravaggio's art, in particular?
Hewson: I think Caravaggio is a wonderful painter. He is an artist you can only appreciate by seeing the canvases. Any representation in a book or anywhere else just fails. And if you go into the French church, where the climax of the book takes place, the pictures in there are just wonderful. He's an artist who just had this incredibly timeless, modern approach to the subject; and he just cuts through everything. The painting in the Francesi, the one in which the tax collector sitting there at the table, and Jesus walks in and points at him; and it's a fascinating painting because all the characters at the table are in contemporary costume for the time, whereas Jesus is in historical costume. The allegory is that Jesus is not pointing at the tax collector, he is pointing at everyone within Caravaggio's time, saying, "I'm calling you all into account." And it's just a very, very beautiful complex allegory he's playing out there. Every time I go back to Rome, I have to go and see some Caravaggios. For me, it beats anything you find in Venice. It has so much humanity and toughness inside it.
Q: In your books, how do you deal with the Italian form of justice?
Hewson: I chose Rome for these books since it is a great place to set a story about justice because the legal system came out of Rome and Rome traditionally and classically stood for justice for everyone. So it makes it a very appropriate place to talk about what justice is today. The back story you find in Nic Costa, and for the team when it becomes an ensemble piece in the future books -- the back story is that these are good men and women trying to do a good honest job within a society where most of the people have abandoned the idea of being honest. I don't think that's a purely Italian thing, actually. I think one of the big questions of the 21st century is how to be good in a society where politicians in all countries will ignore the law to get their own ends. I think ten or fifteen years ago that was a particularly Italian theme--now it applies to lots of other countries, my own not least of all.
Q: As the series continues, who will be your main characters?
Hewson: The core of the team, as it were, from now on will be Costa, Falcone, Teresa, and a new character that you'll meet who will be Costa's new partner. He's called Gianni Peroni, who's such a big character that you have to stop him swamping the book, sometimes. But I'm really really pleased with him.
Q: In your future books do you plan to play up the regional origin of any of your characters?
Hewson: No, I'm not going to go into that.
Q: How about the insertion of an occasional Italian phrase, here and there?
Hewson: It is always difficult when you are writing a book in a foreign country. You have to kind of take on what you do with the language, what you do with the vocabulary. I try to establish some rules. I don't want to do a book in which somebody has to get a dictionary to understand what a word is. So, you know, I'll talk about porchetta in reference of a sandwich--they will probably get that it's going to be pork. So, I will use those things, but I don't want to use specific phrases that somebody's going to have to go away and look up because I think people find that annoying. You get the same problem with vocabulary. Do you write a book in which the English speech tries to emulate Italian, like a translation of Camilleri, the way someone really speaks. I feel uncomfortable trying to do that. Of course, I firmly believe that cops everywhere have this universal language which is direct, colloquial and sounds very much like American or something like that. So, you'll find some Italian references in there, but not so many that people will have to start looking them up.
Q: What can you tell us about your second book in the Rome series?
(A Villa of Mysteries)
Hewson: What happens in #2 is that it kicks off with a couple of American tourists who are in Rome. They're the kind of tourists who behave incredibly well at home, but as soon as they're out of the country just go wild. They decide to take a present home from Rome; they go digging for something on a archeological dig illegally. They uncover what turns out to be a body. It's a bog body. A bog body is a really interesting phenomenon--which started to crop up when they began to farm peat bogs. Occasionally they discover a body that looks like it's been there for 10-15 years, but on closer analysis they find out it's probably 2000 years old, perfectly preserved. Basically, they uncover a bog body and there's the question whether it's a modern one or an old one. Now, while that's happening a girl is apparently kidnapped which kicks off that investigation which eventually meshes into the uncovered body. It's a story that's actually based around the question of whether someone is re-enacting Dionysian rituals in Rome which involve games with girls that may or may not end in sacrifice. The Villa of Mysteries is a villa in Pompeii which no one can quite explain. It depicts the rights of initiation of a Dionysian ceremony which would appear to be a girls initiation into adulthood. The ritual was eventually banned within Rome itself--this was pre-Christian--it was too much for Romans. So the book hangs around this question: is someone re-enacting the Dionysian ritual which involves killing a girl in a ritual way in modern Rome.
Q: And, what can you tell us about #3 of the Rome series?
(A Sacred Cut)
Hewson: #3 is a very contemporary story that kicks off with a crime that takes place in the Pantheon, which is one of my favorite buildings. I do some terrible things to my favorite buildings in these books. The heart of the story is set around the Pantheon and what the Pantheon means. There's this huge kind of cult status of the Pantheon in certain academics circles where people are trying to interpret its meaning - you know its about squaring the circle and the magic geometric dimensions of it. So, it's about a crime that has been committed in the Pantheon by somebody who understands the building and unraveling why anybody would want to do that. Again, it's got a very contemporary modern theme along side the old one.
Q: Is it very difficult to come up with the plot for the next book in this series?
Hewson: Whenever I go to Italy, I come back thinking three more books. It's a place that is so inspirational for me because you just see things, you talk to people and it's just so full of life, I guess is the answer. I've only written one book about my own country, England; and I set it on my doorstep where I actually live in the countryside. I couldn't bear writing about London or wherever because it just doesn't inspire me. But when I go to Italy, there is just so much activity and so much dynamism. I just look at something and imagine a scene. That's how every book kicks off with me, you know, what is the problem? The problem is what kicks off the second act of the book. I find it very easy at the moment to go there and find those problems. Writing is always hard because it's difficult to do it well, but to find the raw material is fantastically easy in Italy which is probably why so many of us head off for there.
Q: Do you find that before you finish one books, you're start thinking about the genesis for another one?
Hewson: Yes, I went to Venice to finish off the third book and it was during La Biennale and I just saw a couple of things there -- you know after three books these guys live with me now. I can hear them talking. I can hear them arguing. I know what they would do in a certain situation, but I am their God and they still have to do what I tell them to do in the end. I just saw one scene -- I won't tell you what it is -- but I saw one scene happening in this modern art exhibition, La Biennale, and I just thought, I'm going to put you there because it just will be so interesting to see how the hell you get out of it. So that's in the fourth book and will take them to Venice. But after the third book they'll have to get out of Rome anyway, because they're in big trouble.
Q: In the near term, are you going to continue writing more books in the Rome series?
Hewson:  The Rome books will run to a minimum of six. It's very important when I set out in this series, I had this discussion with the various publishers, that I was not going to do books about the same set of cops sitting there when a different crime came in and they tackled it. I wanted something that was an ensemble piece where this team of cops interacted with each other, changed over the period of time of the books. The back story of these books is a bunch of men and women trying to be good in a situation where it's hard to know what good is. Over the space of six books, they will each find their own solution to that and it's going to be difficult for some of them. So, at the end of the sixth book, which I've already got in my head, there will be a juncture at which, without giving anything away, things will all have to change. I have kind of set it up for myself because it appeals to me in that it gives me over six books a chance to pursue the long term story about a set of good and interesting people and their eventual fate. But, also after the sixth book I would have to come up with something new.
Q: Do you plan to age your characters very much during these six books?
Hewson: Just a few years. The story of these characters is that what's happening to Nic Costa is that he is an innocent, who's having to face up to adulthood and the problems that brings; and having to ask himself some of those tough questions about, -- do I acquiesce and become cynical and turn a blind eye, now and then like everyone else does in this business. That's his quest over those six books. Gianni Peroni -- his back story is that he's a man who's fallen from grace because of just one misdemeanor and does he actually want to really get back in the race and be what he was before which was a very good, very senior cop. And for Leo Falcone, his challenge is -- you know, he's a guy who starts out being cynical and says, well that's how it is. But he's one who's made good by being exposed to Nic Costa and to Gianni Peroni. And, he starts to remember that he actually came into this for a reason. That ultimately will change him. It doesn't mean that there will only be six books, but at the end of those six books, there will be three characters who ultimately change completely, and it will have to take a different kind of slant.


Q: When you begin writing a book, do you have a clear picture of the entire plot; exactly where it’s going, how it ends, and who the culprit is?
Hewson: I've always got a very good idea who the culprit is, I couldn't proceed without that. In fact, most of my books aren't whodunits they're more whydunits, the more complex sort of mysteries. You know who's done it half way through, normally. I plan it out to a certain extent, but I do feel very strongly that you've got to listen to your characters. I now know these guys so well that I'm not going to paint them into a corner where they're going to turn around to me and say, no we wouldn't do this. But earlier on with stand-alone books that would often happen. I would find myself reaching a point where the characters themselves would say no. It isn't working and I'd have to go back.
With Semana Santa, I got halfway through that book and the female character, Maria Gutierrez, was a subsidiary character at that point but she was such a strong character that I kept writing these scenes and she was taking over. I just sat back and thought, this book has to have her as the lead character. So I had to go right back to the beginning and rewrite the whole thing. But that was what made the book because it made me write a female lead character which was a huge challenge, but worked in the end. Yes, you structure it somewhat, but you've got to be willing to change if the people inside it have different ideas.
Q: After the first draft, how much rewriting do you do?
Hewson: Every book's different. With the ones I've done, I tend to write in chunks. The first act, maybe 20-30,000 words, normally happens very quickly. That's the bit of the story that's actually going to define the problem, define the acceptance of that problem to the people who are in it and pitch them up against the issues that they're going to face in trying to solve it. So, I will often write that and try and polish that and then go onto the second act, which is always the very difficult one. And then finish the second act and read them both in conjunction, edit them both and then go onto the third act. If you've got the first and the second sorted out, the third act should fall out fairly easily. And then, I do a whole read of the book twice, three times. At that point, I never think the book's finished. To me, that's the point at which I want the editor to see it. My books tend not to have an awful lot of editing at the editing stage. I am now edited simultaneously in New York and London by two wonderful female editors, who are good friends as well, so they see things the same way. But the comments tend to be about cutting or bringing in emphasis, not huge amounts of work. I think the more books you write, they don't become easier, but your antennae become more tuned to when it's going wrong. So, you do less stuff that isn't going to work.
Q: Now that you know your characters in the Rome series fairly well, does the writing get easier?
Hewson: Things like dialogue become easier, because you know their quirks. If you read all these "how to write" books, which I haven't very much, they always tell you characters must act within type and stuff like that. I don't believe any of that. I think a real character's like a real human being in that ninety percent of the time he will behave the same way in certain situations, and for ten percent of the time he will be completely illogical. It's the ten per cent of unpredictability that makes them special. Although that part becomes easier, what is always difficult is the structure, the pace, and the element of revelation throughout the story. Writers either let too much go or too little go and you've got to strike a balance there. That's where an editor will need to come in and say, "you could do that earlier," or "you could do that later."


Q: What’s your opinion of other writers who have set their mystery novels in Italy?
Hewson: I've read some Dibdin and Donna Leon over the years. I think they're very different writers. I think what they are doing is actually a different style of book from me. I think Donna Leon's is a very classic kind of crime book, has obvious antecedents, and does that very well and very successfully. Michael Dibdin has got his own kind of niche -- which is this kind of literary, quite slow moving, detailed interior story. He is probably in a sense more Italian than me because he's actually lived there, which I have never done. If you ask me for a favorite, I'd be talking about Camilleri; because if you read him, you can smell the sea, which is what it's really about.
One of the other things that happens when you start writing books, is you read less. You don't have time, but you are also aware that it's very easy to pick up things unconsciously. So a lot of my reading tends to be against type. I love the Robert Graves' historical works, I Claudius and Claudius the God, and classical stuff such as Tacitus. They make Ancient Rome come to life and also pitch political ideas at you that make you realize that Rome 2000 years ago was actually not that different than the world we have here today.


Q: How do you view the American market?
Hewson: I struggled to be published in America for years, even with a book, EPIPHANY, which was actually set over here. Editors kept telling me they loved the books but they were just too European. I think in the 90s there wasn't actually that much interest in America for books set in Europe apart from stories in the UK. I'd reached the stage where I had just assumed that the books I wrote, even though they do well in the UK and Germany, weren't going to get published over here. Kate Miciak, my editor at Bantam Dell, read A SEASON FOR THE DEAD and first of all rejected it because she just thought it would be too hard to make it work. Then a week later she came back and bought it because she couldn't get the story out of her head. Now Bantam Dell have picked up three of the Rome books, and bought LUCIFER'S SHADOW too, and we're talking about more. When I went over and finally met Kate in New York she was just so enthusiastic. She was not hiding the difficulties of breaking Italian-based stories over here, but everyone I've met in Bantam Dell is very, very enthusiastic about making the series succeed. It's a big show of faith on their part, which I find very flattering and a little daunting to be honest. To go from nowhere to having two hardbacks slated for publication in 2004, another in 2005, with two paperbacks of the previous year's editions too. it's the kind of thing a British writer dreams of. Bantam Dell have been great but I do think that the American reader is more sophisticated than some publishers give them credit for. With all my books that have been published in the UK, I've always had emails from people in the U.S. saying, "I've picked up your book and I loved it."

A Season for the Dead | The Villa of Mysteries | The Sacred Cut | Lucifer's Shadow