Thursday 5 January 2012

Dancing With Myself: JOHN BARLOW interviews JOHN BARLOW

Welcome, John. Is this the first time you’ve interviewed yourself?

It’s the first time I’ve ever written it down. But like most people who work alone in a quiet room all day, I chat to myself a lot. So this feels very familiar.

Great. So why are you on Nigel Bird’s blog?

Long story short: I asked. Short story long: I’ve just published my first serious crime mystery, HOPE ROAD, and I’m trying to build some publicity for it.

Doesn’t your publisher do that?

Normally, yes. But this time I’ve decided to publish the novel myself, initially as an ebook, and then as a paperback.

Did your agent think that was a great idea?

Ehm, next question...

Come on. No point doing the interview if you’re gonna to get all coy.

OK. Well we did finally agree that testing the ebook market wasn’t *such* a bad idea. The industry is in a state of flux. Nobody really knows what’s going to happen once electronic books become the dominant format for mainstream publishing (ETA 2015-6). What we do know is that advances from traditional publishers are way down, while quite a lot of self-publishers are making good money putting their work on Amazon, Kobo, Apple etc.

So you thought you’d jump on the bandwagon?

You make it sound so vulgar! Given that I was writing a crime mystery (one of the genres that is doing best in the current ebook boom), I thought it was a good moment to give it a try; a ‘no guts, no glory’ sort of thing.

Bandwagon, then?


And how has it gone?

The novel has been on Amazon and Smashwords a few weeks, but I’m still waiting for it to appear on sites like Waterstones, B&N, Apple and Tescos. This, then, is the first thing I have learned: get everything ready before you publish! I spent most of December doing a crash course in self-publishing.

Any other hard-earned nuggets of e-wisdom?

Yes. Get a serious publicity strategy in place before you click the ‘publish’ button. Otherwise you’ll get your book into the Kindle store, and realise (as I did) that nobody can see it. Visibility is a huge issue in e-publishing.

You mean you didn’t realise this would happen?

I know. I’m a tool.

Hey, why not tell us a little bit about the book?

Good idea. The basics: it's set in contemporary Leeds. It’s a noirish amateur sleuth mystery with a police procedural running in parallel. The sleuth is the son of a crime boss, and his girlfriend is a police detective. The end.

There’s a dead body, right?

Yep. But the book began as a story about counterfeit money. For about ten years I’ve had a low-level obsession with fake money. Low-level in the sense that I’m not a counterfeiter myself (although I have met people who are *connected*). My specific interest is in the process of how fake banknotes are ‘passed off’ in large quantities, which usually involves an army of ‘changers’ who target corner shops, car boot sales, pubs and clubs etc. But this method is fraught with danger because of the number of people involved, and also because a lot of places now have scanners for banknotes.

Just as some people try to evolve the ‘perfect murder’ in their minds, for years I racked my brains to devise the perfect ‘passing off’ operation. It would have to be ONE person acting alone, and it would have to be almost risk-free. I think I managed it.

You’re not going to tell us the secret, are you?

No. What I will tell you is that last year I had lunch with a DI from the West Yorkshire CID. I explained the scam in the novel to pass off hundreds of thousands of pounds worth of fake notes, and he was pretty impressed. Actually, he was very impressed indeed. Over our Malaysian buffet we tweaked the operation further, making it even more watertight.

So it’s a book about fake money?

No. It’s a murder mystery. The money is a subplot. But it’s really about neither of these. It’s about the main character, John Ray, and his relationship to those around him, especially his criminal family. My own family has an arms dealer in its murky past (he was found dead on a flight from Amsterdam in the early 80s, so no useful insights into the criminal world from Unkie Donald I’m afraid...), but that’s not strictly relevant. This is a novel about John Ray.

Tell us about John, John

It might sound a bit grand and high-falutin’, but creating the character of John Ray has changed the course of my life.

Yes, it sounds ridiculous. Explain.

First off, he’s the kind of bloke I’d like to be, and he’s incredibly enjoyable to write. Second, he emerged out of nowhere. I had the setting for the book (Leeds), and since my family are all from the city, I had a very strong emotional connection to the place. But John himself just swaggered in and took control. I never had to think much about what he’d do in a specific situation. I just dropped him in a scene and watched.

By the time I was finishing up the rewrites (my agent is an ex-editor, so I had brilliant editorial support) the fact that I had invented John Ray had completely vanished from my head. It was quite weird, but also very gratifying. And I knew he would remain a central character in my future work. I knew, in essence, that this novel was the start of a very long project, which in the end I have called LS9 (the area of Leeds where HOPE ROAD is set), and will ultimately comprise nine novels.

NINE! Why set yourself such a ridiculous target?

Ignoring the fact that you’ve now used the word ‘ridiculous’ in your last two questions... Nine novels because they’ll evolve as three very loose, interconnected trilogies. I want to stay with John as he and I get older (we’re the same age, 44), but I also want to branch out and look at some of the other characters in more detail. For example, Denise Danson (John’s police detective girlfriend) deserves more space.

BTW: I’m particularly interested in how readers respond to the character of Den Danson. Please mail/twitter me of you have any comments, good or bad.

Nine novels about little old Leeds, then.

Not at all. John Ray’s father is Spanish, a career criminal who emigrated to the UK in 1958. At some point the series will leap across to Spain.

And that would suit you because...

It’s where I live. I’m from Yorkshire, but now I live in Galicia, the cold, rainy part of northern Spain (think Yorkshire with tapas).

So the next decade of your writing life is all mapped out.

Yes. From Leeds to La Coruña. I’m not kidding, this is my life’s work. All I have to do is stay alive.

And write.


Thanks for speaking to us, John.

Thank you. And thanks to Nigel for having us!




Contact John:



  1. Here's a comment from my blog today:

    'John, is it LS9 the postcode > leads to NINE novels about Leeds, or the other way about? Coincidence?'

    The answer? I guess the number nine must have been in the back of my mind, but it is a coincidence that the series is called LS9 (taken from the postcode) and that there will be nine novels.

    I had never thought about it. But yes, it must have been something I did subconsciously.

  2. John- Great job with that interview. One of the best I"ve read in this series. The counterfeiting subplot is very intersting

  3. Thank you, Sean. I LOVE counterfeiting (as a topic, not an activity)! I think it's a bit like modern-day alchemy, turning base metal (paper) into gold (money). Fascinating, and the counterfeiters that I've read about seem to be pretty eccentric and not really 'criminals' in their outlook. Best wishes, JB

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