Writers in conversation: Steve Cavanagh and Luca Veste
Steve Cavanagh is a human rights lawyer working in Northern Ireland. The Defence is his debut novel, which was longlisted for the Crime Writer’s Association Ian Fleming Steel Dagger, and shortlisted for two Dead Good Readers Awards.
Luca Veste, a former civil servant, guitarist and actor, is author of the Murphy & Rossi crime series and editor of the Spinetingler-nominated charity anthology ‘Off The Record’.
Luca – I’m endlessly fascinated by the story of a writer’s journey. I started out quite late – I thought – with my own writing career. I didn’t write stories or anything of that sort until I was 28, so I’ve only been at this thing of ours for a few years. Speaking to other writers however, I know there’s a fair few out there who started writing when they were young, in school, getting attention for having a big imagination. How did it start out for you?
Steve – For me the desire to tell stories started early, but it took me a fair few years to get my ass in gear to do it. My Granda and my Dad would sit around with their friends, most nights, telling stories. I would just sit and listen, fascinated. Neither my Dad or my Granda read much, but my Mum did. She read four or five books a week, and I caught the crime bug from her. When I was young, far too young in retrospect, she gave me a copy of The Silence of the Lambs and that changed everything for me. I read all the books, especially American crime thrillers, that I could get my hands on. But when it came to writing, I didn’t write crime at first. In my late teens I started writing screenplays, mostly comedies. I even got an agent, but he couldn’t get anything sold so I gave up age 21. After that I always harboured the fantasy of writing a book, but never did it. Then in 2011, when I was aged 35, my Mum passed away quite suddenly. She was the only person who ever encouraged me to write so I thought I’d give it one more shot, for her. I started writing The Defence in September 2011, in secret, after a 14-year break. What about you? Starting at 28 doesn’t seem late at all. And you’ve still got your hair!
Luca – Yes, although being half Italian, I would be very annoyed if I lost my hair this soon. We’re a hirsute bunch. Like you, I was surrounded by stories in my family. And jokes. Everyone always has a funny story to top the last one. My dad was a screenwriter as it happens and actually made a film back in the 90s. I was a voracious reader as a child as well. Started with Enid Blyton and then went into horror when I was a teenager. I didn’t really read crime until I was around 23 – which was about 7 years after I’d pretty much stopped reading and started doing “teenage” things – and someone gave me Mark Billingham’s first book. I quickly caught up with his series and have read predominantly crime books since. Dead Gone – my first book – started out life as a very different book and came from writing short stories and progressing to something longer. I abandoned the first version of that story – which was a woeful scouse gangster-style cliche of a novel – and wrote a first draft in a few months. Then, redrafted three times to finally land an agent for it around a year later.
How long did it take you to get an agent?
Steve – Well, first, Dead Gone is a blinder of a debut. The work paid off. Getting an agent? Well, that took a while. It took me about six or seven months to do the first draft of The Defence, then I spent maybe another six months redrafting it, polishing it. So I think it started looking for an agent mid-2012. And I finally got one in April 2013 so probably around nine months to get representation. And I tell you, those were a hard nine months. I started off trying to get a US agent, but I didn’t think I was good enough to go for any of the big agencies, so I mainly tried the small and medium sized agencies. And I got a lot of rejections. Then, I got a little hint of light at the end of the tunnel. I started to get requests for the first three chapters, from agents that just wanted a pitch letter, and then requests for the full manuscript. I got a real buzz from this and a bigger downer when the rejections came back. One agency really loved the first three chapters, and requested the full book. I was enthusiastic about this small UK based agency, but I’d been in that situation before, so I thought I may as well try a couple of the bigger agents. I was getting rejections, anyway, so I thought I may as well get rejected by the best.
I remember it was a Monday night, I got the email from the small agency who’d read the full manuscript and who I’d been really keen on. They hated it. It was a rejection which contained the lines, “You can write, but this book will never be published. Write something else and we’ll read it.” Man, I was devastated. I thought, that’s it – this book is over I need to write something else. Then on the Wednesday I had two of the biggest agencies in the UK come back and offer representation for the same book that I’d been told would never be published. It was an amazing feeling. So now I’m very proud to be a Heathen (I’m represented by AM Heath).
How did you hook up with your agent?
Luca – I was quite bullish when it came to finding an agent. I knew a few other writers at the time and there were a couple who always raved about their agent. Now, I edited a couple of charity anthologies around that time, and I think that agent was tipped off that I was writing a novel. He sent me a message on Twitter saying good work on the anthologies, when you’ve got a novel to show people, I’d love to read it. That was back in February 2012. I finished the first draft in about March, read it once, thought it was as good as it was ever going to be, and sent it to the agent.
He rejected it, somewhat nicely, a few weeks later.
I took his notes on board, redrafted, and sent it back in the June.
He rejected that one as well, with the option to resend another draft. I was, similar to you, devastated. I’d worked tirelessly on all the notes and only succeeded in creating new problems.
By this point, I was convinced I couldn’t write a better book, so decided to send it to four other agents. One rejected within a day, as they had decided to concentrate on children’s fiction. The other three agents asked for the full manuscript. As a matter of courtesy, I emailed the original agent, who by now was quite friendly with me, and let him know I was showing other agents the book and was getting some interest. I received an email back straight away, asking if I could speak on the phone. What followed was ninety minutes of the agent telling me exactly what was wrong with the book, what need fixing, and a general tearing apart of my work. The last five minutes of the call was him offering me representation. I pretty much immediately accepted the offer.
Best decision I’ve ever made. I rewrote the book in a month, working almost every hour I was awake (which as an insomniac, is quite a few), and he was happy with the result.
What is bizarre, is that it took only six weeks after that to find a publisher. A year to get an agent, six weeks to get a publisher … shows how valuable a good agent can be, and I have a great one in Phil Patterson.
The Defence is ridiculously good. To the point where I was hoping it wasn’t really a debut, but a new novel from an established writer under a pseudonym. I can only imagine it was picked up the next day by a publisher in a sixteen-way auction?
Steve – That’s class. I love that story. What I hear sometimes from writers who are looking for an agent, or a publishing deal, is that they are quite precious about their book. Which is totally the wrong attitude. When you write your first book you basically know nothing. You learn by writing and then it’s your agent’s and publisher’s job to point out all the shit that you can’t see and make the book better.
Thanks for the kind words about The Defence. It was picked up quick, but only after a lot of work. I got representation from Euan Thorneycroft in April 2013, and he sent me pages of notes on the book; what worked, what didn’t work. I knew we were a good match because everything he thought needed changing really did need changing, but I just couldn’t see that. So I worked on the book flat out, and we got it ready for submission in September.
I remember Euan telling me he was sending it out and that it could take months to hear back, so he would email me in three or four weeks and let me know how we got on. That was on a Monday. On the Friday I was stood in my hall, when I got an email. It was from Euan – there was an offer for the book in the UK. Four offers. He would be conducting an auction. I was completely blown away. I remember running into the living room and telling my wife that the book would be published. At that stage I didn’t care who published it, but I knew somebody would and that was enough. In the end I went with Orion, who publish some of my heroes and things have worked out well.
So in your first book we meet DI David Murphy and DS Laura Rossi. How did you go about shaping those characters and did you conceive the first book as the beginning of a series? If you didn’t, is there anything you would change now?
Luca – That’s my favourite kind of publishing story. Unsurprising, given how good it is, but there’s still an element of doubt with anything regarding publishing!
Well, Murphy happened quite by accident. I’ve already mentioned the discarded scouse-gangster novel, which contained an element of what makes up Dead Gone – the psychology angle, someone killing people based on real psychological experiments etc. When I started over, I kept the psychology bit, and disregarded everything else. I remember I was re-reading one of my favourite books – The 50/50 Killer by Steve Mosby – and thinking I wanted to write something more like that. So, I started with the woman on the night out, getting in the taxi, and disappearing. Then, I was going to concentrate on her partner, but realised writing those ‘ordinary people in extraordinary situations’ novels were extremely difficult to write! I decided I needed a police point of view, as they could do things ordinary people couldn’t really. My uncle is an ex-copper, so I used him as a basis. He shares his physical size, nickname, some of his qualities, but has none of the baggage Murphy does. Once I started writing about Murphy, I just found he was more interesting to me. Murphy quickly usurped the boyfriend character and became the star.
However, back then, his sidekick was a bloke called Nick Ayris.
Going back to that phone conversation with Agent Phil, he casually mentioned that usually it’s a male/female partnership, and that there was nothing Italian in the book. Which was surprising to him, given I was half-Italian.
Nick Ayris became Laura Rossi and that’s why agents are important!
Rossi is by far my favourite character to write now. I can get all these little things about my Italian family in there – my nan asking me if I’m hungry as soon as I’d walked through the door, before saying hello, my dad swearing in Italian, the quick-temper, etc.
I did envisage a series if it got picked up, but I’d still change things. I probably wouldn’t have Murphy having quite such a lot of baggage to carry, although that worked (hopefully) eventually. That’s about it though. There’s no plan as such, but I have ideas for about seven or eight books total. I’m writing number four now, so I’m halfway through! And those ideas will probably change.
You and Eddie Flynn … always a series as well?
Steve – Have to say I love Rossi; the Italian swearing! She is such a great character.
Ahm, yeah, I had an idea for the character first. A con artist who became a lawyer, because I wanted to explore the overlap in those professions and how a trial works – the art of cross examination and how that really is the art of persuasion, misdirection and manipulation. Before the book got picked up I had an idea for four or five, and I really wanted to start writing them but I knew The Defence had to be the first one. If that book hadn’t been published I wouldn’t be writing about that character because the events in The Defence cause Eddie to fall back into his old hustler ways. No other storyline could’ve achieved that in the same way. Right now I’m writing the third book. I love series characters, so it felt natural to try and start my own. Although, I’ve been hit with several decent ideas for standalone books lately. I don’t know if I’ll write them. Maybe down the line.
Do you ever think of trying a standalone? And how do you go about writing? Plotter, pantser, when and how do you write?
Luca – Can’t wait to read more Eddie.
I’ve got the beginning of a standalone in a word doc on my computer. It’s pretty much plotted out as well, but I’m happy writing the series for now. I’m a big fan of series characters as well, so I’m happy at the moment. I’m a little of both. I plot a little, then just write for a while, before plotting a little more. Usually, this leads to me rewriting half a book, four weeks before a deadline though!
I start with a small idea. Then, I need some sort of theme – with the new one, Bloodstream, it’s about love and media – and I can just go from there. With my books, there’s always an investigation that starts you off, which usually involves a body or the lack of one, so it’s just a battle against making that too samey/cliche and just writing. Then rewriting. Then throwing things at the wall and hoping inspiration hits at some point!
Do you plan much? And the same question about standalones to you… would you consider writing something set in your own country?
Steve – That’s interesting that you start off with a theme. I know Ian Rankin does something similar so you’re in good company. I think doing it that way, with a theme in mind, really helps you focus on what you want to achieve with the book. I’m reading Bloodstream at the moment, and loving it. The whole celebrity thing is well done, and my wife zipped through the book in a day or so.
I tend not to have a theme, and one or two kind of emerge. I don’t plot or plan anything. I write line by line, and then I go back and rewrite the beginning until I have it nailed. Once I’ve got a decent 50 pages or so, I’m off and I don’t tend to look back until I’m almost at the end. Then I stop. Go back and redraft from the beginning before I write the end. It’s a weird process. I tend to have a vague idea, and go from there. The second book, The Plea, touches on white collar crime like money laundering and how it’s done in the digital age, and there’s a locked room mystery done with CCTV. (A word of advice to new writers. NEVER do a locked room mystery, not until you are well down the line with at least a couple of books under your belt. And then plan it all out from the beginning.)
Standalones are very appealing when you’re writing a series, but also scary. I think you have to time it right. That last thing you want to do is release a standalone when everyone is waiting for the next book in the series. It never quite has the same impact.
I don’t know if I’d write something set in Northern Ireland. I won’t rule it out, but the ideas for standalones that are kicking around in my head are set in the US. Although, I did have one idea for a Northern Ireland story, but I sort of think that would work much better on TV than in a book.
Luca – I’ll take the company of Ian Rankin. I saved a penalty of his, in a crime writers’ football match. I don’t mention it very often.
Locked room mystery, ouch. That’s not something I have planned to do any time soon!
Interesting that Northern Ireland hasn’t really featured much in your planning. When I started out, I couldn’t imagine setting my books anywhere other than Liverpool. I can’t really imagine writing about anywhere else, even with the help of Google Maps. You didn’t just choose a different city, but an entirely different country. How does that work and is it solely so you can pass of US holidays as expenses?
Steve – A US holiday would be very nice.
It’s not so much of a leap really. I grew up watching US TV shows and reading books set in the US, so the language, the rhythms, the pace and the locations, all seem very real to me. Plus, New York fits with the pace and the style of story I wanted to write. And by setting it in New York I can cheat. If I’d set it somewhere in North Carolina, I’d have to take a fair bit of time to describe the place. Whereas, as soon I say New York, every single person reading the book immediately creates their own mental image without me having to help them too much.
If I’d set the book in Belfast it just wouldn’t have worked. Plus, look at all the writers coming out of Northern Ireland, like Stuart Neville, Brian McGilloway, Eoin McNamee, Adrian McKinty, Gerard Brennan, Claire MacGowan. I just couldn’t compete with that lot.
How important is setting to you? A few of the places and buildings in The Defence are fictional, any fictional settings or are they all meticulously researched? And what does Liverpool add to the series, for you?
Luca – Stuart Neville, now there’s a writer. When I grow up, I want to be as good as him.
Nothing really fictional in my book. Everything exists, with a couple of minor changes here and there, so no one sues me. There’s a house in the first book which plays a major role in the ending and that’s slightly invented. The road it’s on exists, but the house itself is a creation. My police characters work from the real offices in the city centre, they live in real locations (again with some alterations), and I hope daily that it doesn’t get me into trouble!
Liverpool to me just feels natural. It’s a setting not really utilised in crime fiction, so I have that going for me, as it’s somewhere new for readers to discover. It’s big enough, that I have many locations within it to utilise. Plus, there are so many different characters in Liverpool, that I can bring in realism to what is an unrealistic topic. We last had a serial killer in Liverpool back in the 1800s (we’ve exported a couple since then, but never had any on the streets from what I know), which means my serial killer books don’t really conform to the reality of the city. Hopefully, with the characters, topics, and locations, I can make it a little more realistic.
What’s the one thing you want to achieve in your writing career … awards, events, etc.?
Steve – You should set your books in Northern Ireland, we’ve had more than our fair share of serial killers. And I totally agree about Stuart – phenomenal talent.
The one thing I want to achieve? I don’t know if I could narrow it down to just one thing. It’s weird, when you’re struggling to be published you just want to have that moment of seeing your book on a shelf. When you’ve achieved that, then you want somebody to actually buy the bloody book, take it home, read it and enjoy it. Then you want lots of people to do that. Ideally, enough to get you onto the bestseller list – so I think your goals change throughout your career. I’m sure there are well known bestselling writers, who want higher sales, and better chart positions every year.
For me, I have two goals. One is to be able to sell enough books, and make enough money that I could be financially stable and support my family through my writing. That is the big one for me. Second goal, to write a better book than the last one, year on year. Awards are totally in the lap of the Gods. You do your best and if someone wants to give you an award, well that’s lovely. But there are plenty of amazing crime novels that don’t win awards but stay in print and become classics.
The other part of this writing game is getting to meet so many other great writers. There are still a few legends on my list of people that I want to meet – Stephen King for one.
What about you – career goals?
Luca – Similar to you, I just want to write a better book than the last one. Security would be up there as well. I’d love to have a novel in hardback, as that’s something I always equate with quality (for some unknown reason). Awards – I’d like them and I hate people who have them (jokes!), but not a top priority.
I’ll be standing next to you when you meet Stephen King. My literary hero. Which neatly leads me into a conclusion to this conversation.
What’s your favourite book? Mine is by the aforementioned – and soon to be Steve and Luca’s best mate – Stephen King, and is The Stand.
Steve – If we meet Stephen King I’m going ask him to take a photograph of you and me. Just for the Craic. (“Excuse me, Mr King. Could we get a photo?” “Why sure,” says Stephen King.) I’m joking of course. I’d be a complete gibbering mess meeting somebody like him. That would be a cool day, and another reason to envy Stuart who has indeed met the man.
Favourite book? I haven’t read it in years, but The Lord of The Rings used to be my favourite book. I used to read it every Christmas, for about ten years. Now I think I’d have to go with Red Dragon, or The Firm. If you’d asked me last week I would’ve said Every Dead Thing by John Connolly or The Concrete Blonde by Michael Connelly. My favourites change all the time.
And as a final bit, best bit of writing advice you can give to a new writer?
Luca – Ha! We must do that. Hopefully in the future we’ll get the chance.
I’m awful with advice, but here’s the best I can do … finish. Whatever you’re writing, just finish it. That’s the hardest part of writing, I think. Finishing the bloody thing. Having a complete story in front of you makes things much easier. Then, you can get to the fun part. Rewriting.
Steve – Read and write. Read the best books you can find and aspire to get close to that level. And write as much as you can every single day. It’s the only way to improve.
More about Steve Cavanagh: Steve was born and raised in Belfast and is a practicing lawyer. He is married with two young children. The Defence, has been chosen as one of Amazon’s 2015 Rising Stars programme. The Defence was longlisted for the Crime Writer’s Association Ian Fleming Steel Dagger, and shortlisted for two Dead Good Readers Awards for Best Ending and Most Recommended Book. Steve writes fast-paced legal thrillers set in New York City featuring lawyer and former con artist, Eddie Flynn. The Defence is his first novel. Find out more at www.stevecavanagh.com or follow Steve on Twitter @SSCav
More about Luca Veste: Luca is a writer of Scouse and Italian heritage, author of the Murphy & Rossi series. His latest book is called Bloodstream. He is also the editor of the Spinetingler Award nominated charity anthology ‘Off The Record’. He is a former civil servant, actor, singer and guitarist (although he still picks it up now and again). He can be found at www.lucaveste.com and on twitter @LucaVeste.