Q&A with Ashley Dyer
What was the very first crime fiction book that you read and who introduced you to the genre?
The VERY first would be something from The Famous Five series, but in terms of adult fiction it would probably be Agatha Christie – don’t ask me which title, I was eleven or twelve at the time, and read anything I could scrounge from my parent’s bedside tables. Mum’s favourites were Christie, G.K. Chesterton, Dorothy L Sayers, whereas Dad read the big thriller writers – Maclean, Bagley, Neville Shute etc.
Who were your influences when you decided to start writing? What books influence your writing?
I’d never have started writing if it weren’t for Stephen King. Not that we’re buddies or anything, but I’d been intimidated out of putting pen to paper by my O’ level reading list – Jane Austen, Charlotte Bronte, Harper Lee – you get the drift. Then I started reading Stephen King and I realised that you could write engaging intelligent prose with contemporary themes and a direct style. And even better, they didn’t have to be about the privileged elite – they could feature people like me – ordinary people in placed in extraordinary situations.
My first memory of wanting to be a writer was influenced by film noir, and I actually began writing a ‘novel’ at the age of ten, based on a character from an old B&W film, starring Humphrey Bogart. Perhaps my earlier reading influenced me on a subliminal level, but I can’t remember ever reading a Christie and thinking ‘I want to write a book like that’, for instance – in fact, I didn’t read any crime fiction between the ages of fifteen and thirty. I was convinced that my first novel, Goodnight my Angel, was going to be a supernatural thriller and when my agent suggested that was a crime novel, I felt slightly depressed. Then I began reading modern crime fiction and I cheered up considerably. You see, I had the notion that crime fiction was still stuck in the fifties and sixties, and when I realised how contemporary the themes were, and how much modern crime fiction relied on good characterisation, I was really excited by the genre.
Influences – earlier, probably Ruth Rendell and Patricia Highsmith, but now I’m increasingly drawn to fast paced work with sharp dialogue, Elmore Leonard is a prime example – and I still watch film with an eye (or should that be an ear?) for dialogue – how it’s put together, how it moves the plot along, and, of course, how it can misdirect the audience. Dennis Lehane is a current favourite, though he has changed direction over the last ten years from the core crime thrillers he once wrote to novels with a bigger sweep.
What other books are you also attracted to?
My tastes are eclectic: I think Margaret Atwood is one of our finest living writers; I also enjoy Helen Dunmore, F Scott Fitzgerald, Charlotte Bronte and Jane Austen (despite the fact they scared me off writing for years), John Banville, Susan Hill, John Fowles, Shirley Jackson, Russell Hoban.
What do you enjoy reading about in crime fiction? Have you got a specific sub-genre that you read the most?
I do like psychological suspense – for me people are more important than plot – and from this point of view, I think Thomas Harris is the master. But as I said earlier, I also enjoy snappy dialogue. John Connolly combines psychology and witty dialogue very well, as does Dennis Lehane, but I try not to stay with one author or one theme, I like to be surprised.
Your books are known as psychological suspense thrillers and in all of them you have dealt with the dual themes of alienation and social isolation. Why these two topics in particular?
I didn’t even know those themes recurred until a journalist a couple of years back pointed it out to me! I think we write about the things that preoccupy us. I taught children in the State sector who were alienated – who felt that society had nothing to offer them, and even when I switched to a public school (which for US readers is, paradoxically, privately funded), some of the dyslexic kids I taught were equally disenfranchised by the system. I was something of a loner myself at school, and I went through some fairly isolating experiences in my late teens and early twenties; I guess it seeped into my writing unawares.