It’s a hot, unpleasant day, but then again, at this time of year, aren’t they all?
I look up at the pub sign to check I’m at the right place. The Dirty Lemon. The hanging sign tilts slightly in the dank breeze. Someone has spray-painted a massive cock across the lurid citrus logo.
I walk up the wheelchair ramp, past a bloodied man who has been manacled to the railings by his throat with a dog chain. He reaches out, pleadingly, and I accidentally tread on his fingers.
Fucking Rey, no doubt. His reputation precedes him around here.
Inside the pub, I see him straight away. He is partially obscured by the cigarette machine.
The barmaid – Spacey Tracey – rolls her eyes, and goes back to watering down the house spirits with a jug of pissy-looking tap water. Shit, this place is even worse than I remember.
Two pints of lager sit on the table in front of my contact, sweating in their chipped glasses.
“Kronenbourg alright for you?”
“It’ll have to be.”
He doesn’t offer his hand, and neither do I. He doesn’t look hard, but he’s big enough to make me not want to find out. I drink an inch off the top of my pint, keeping an eye on the door.
“Spit it out then, mate.”
He clears his throat.
People say they picture you when they read the Joe Rey stories. How do you feel about that?
I used to be surprised, but then I started to play up to it. It still makes me laugh when people make that observation, but now I compose myself and incorporate another random personal detail into whatever I’m working on! We currently share the same age, height, drinking tastes and the lack of a driving licence. This approach probably peaked with my mocked-up mugshot on the back cover of the Meat Bubbles & Other Stories paperback, but I’m sure it will re-emerge. As I keep telling people: just don’t expect me to win a knife-fight with a sex offender after ten drinks!
The common perception is that short story collections don’t sell, and yet you have published two this year. What’s wrong with writing a fucking novel, like everyone else?
Easy, mate! Firstly, I’m a big believer in playing to my strengths, and – line for line – my short fiction is definitely stronger than my novella-length material. I’d rather introduce myself to the book-buying public with a pair of strong collections than with a pair of stunted novels.
Case in point: I’ve just finished a Joe Rey novella that I started ten years ago – a truly ridiculous time-frame for a short book. I revisited it last year, with a view to making it the first book in the Paignton Noir series, but then I accidentally wrote and published three novelettes and two short story collections instead! I’ve learned that I can’t force it when things don’t click, so I will just crack on with an alternative project, and try not to sweat the constant continuity headaches!
Personally, I like it when short story collections drag you into a sustained environment – either mood-wise or in terms of narrative voice – and that is what I was striving for with my books. Hopefully the over-arching narratives of Repetition Kills You (US) and Meat Bubbles (US) provide an extra hook for readers who are normally reluctant to read short story collections. I’d love these two books to find an audience straight away, but I’m also comfortable with them being rediscovered further down the line, after the novellas emerge. Most of my favourite authors didn’t find an audience straight away, so I have no qualms with undiscovered status.
Repetition Kills You is an experimental book. Is that a one-off, or do you have more leftfield ideas up your sleeve?
I’m obsessed with subverting the storytelling process. Experimental work, interlinked collections, collaborations, serialised work – everything is on the table. I’ve got a couple more curve-balls up my sleeve, but Joe Rey will always be the lynchpin that binds the ideas together.
Whichever order you read them in, my stories are designed to complement each other, but I really don’t want to write the same book twice. For now, I don’t even want to write in the same format twice. There are thousands of standard issue pulp-crime thrillers out there – I want to rework the blueprint each time and try and stand out from the crowd.
I don’t want to give away any specifics, but I have some really offbeat ideas I want to explore. I’m used to working with open-minded publishers, but some of these ideas will be a genuinely tough sell until my commercial prospects sync better with my ambition!
This book is dedicated to your children, but you warn them that they can’t read it until they are 18. What were you reading when you were 18, and how does it compare to this subject matter?
The sheer number of books I’ve read over the last 20 years makes this very difficult to recall. I definitely remember reading Ecstasy by Irvine Welsh while working as a hut-jockey at Roundham Pitch & Putt that summer. I got it at the Old Celtic Bookshop on Hyde Road after trading in some music biographies – which definitely formed the bulk of my reading activity back then.
I also read the first couple of John King books around that time (Football Factory and Headhunters). Next up on my radar was Bret Easton Ellis. American Psycho cropped up early on in my English Literature degree, as part of a module of transgressive fiction. All of these authors have influenced me to some degree, although it probably isn’t particularly obvious. Is my work more intense than the work of those authors? I would say ‘no’, but others may beg to differ.
Do you think it stretches credibility to write about a PI – that most American of characters – in a small-town UK setting?
To be honest, it has never really weighed particularly heavily on my mind. Right now, it would stretch credibility further to write a crime story about a police officer set in Paignton. They bulldozed the local police station several years ago for a property development that never happened, but I have kept the building intact for the purpose of my Paignton Noir stories, and it continues to feature prominently.
In storytelling terms, having Rey dragged into the basement interrogation room at Paignton cop-shop by a deranged middle-aged cop is far more effective than having him invited into the lobby of the library by a nervous PCSO!
I hope readers consider Rey to be a refreshingly down-to-earth protagonist. His PI status is pretty flaky, and I hope he isn’t too much of a cliché. Fans of hardboiled crime fiction aside, I’d really like my books to appeal to people who want to read thrillers, but are discouraged by the surfeit of ‘sexy-yet-troubled female FBI agent’ and ‘taciturn middle-aged detective’ stereotypes. Granted, my mysteries need a bit of refining, but hopefully there is an audience in the UK for a working-class protagonist investigating crimes in a working-class environment.
Ultimately, this series is intended as escapist Brit-pulp with a little bit of social commentary sprinkled on top. I’ll leave po-faced character studies to…
I don’t get the chance to finish my response.
A man who looks like me – only a lot fucking harder – steps towards my companion and bounces his head off the cigarette machine with a dull thud.
“If I wanted your arse there, I’d pay you for a fucking lap dance, mate.”
I spill my Kronenbourg over my jeans in my haste to get away from him, and stumble down the wheelchair ramp as quickly as possible – careful to avoid the bleeding man who is still chained to the railings. I hit the pavement and I don’t look back.
This fucking town.