Interview: Jay Stringer

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Walsall born, Glasgow based, author Jay Stringer has taken a winding route to crime writing via stints as a bookseller, call centre operator and zoo keeper – yes really. This week saw the release of his debut novel Old Gold, the first of a series which will feature half-Romani cop turned PI Eoin Miller. Jay was kind enough to join us for a chat…

Tell us a bit about Old Gold…
It’s a crime novel set in the Black Country, and I keep calling it social pulp fiction. It’s a murder mystery. Sometimes it’s a PI story, sometimes it’s an urban drama, hopefully it’s always entertaining.

What drew you to crime fiction?
I like stories about the haves and have-nots. If you have a tale about someone who needs something, and the shortest route possible to getting it, you have a crime story. From there it’s very flexible, you can do just about anything with that story.

Eoin Miller is a man of contradictions, half-Romani, an ex-cop turned underworld detective, you seem to enjoy exploring grey areas…
There’s a lot of sneaky moralising in crime fiction, a lot of punishment and set ideas of right and wrong. It’s fun to read, but it never feels real to me. It felt important to sidestep a lot of this with Miller. He has the idea that he should have a Marlowe-esque code, but he doesn’t actually have the morals to back it up, so he’s playing a role. And most of his life has been playing roles, bouncing between his ethnicity, his family, his career and his obligations, all of which are at odds with each other. That felt more real to me, to never pin things down. I’ve tried to leave a few things down to the reader, and morality is one of them.

The Romani community is relatively unpopular in Britain, where do you think this prejudice comes from and were you seeking to challenge it in Old Gold?
They’re one of the most oppressed ethnic groups in history, and it still goes on. In the past, in our own country, being identified as a Gypsy has been a crime that carried the death penalty. They were sold into slavery and deported to work on plantations. It’s still socially acceptable to be racist towards them – you’ll hear things said about them in workplaces, schools or even on TV that you would no longer hear about other ethnic groups. I’ll still go to football matches where fans will chant ‘Gyppo’ at players, and people will use words like ‘Gypped’ as both a noun and verb for cheating. I think most of it is simply because people are not aware.

I don’t want to make people think Old Gold is a preachy crusade against racism, because it’s just my attempt to tell an engaging story, but I’d like to raise a little awareness along the way. I want to write honestly, and in crime fiction that means still having my Romani character do bad things. But I hope that by making him a flawed and human protagonist the book quietly challenges a few cheap clichés about how Gypsies are shown in fiction.

The Midlands is underrepresented in fiction, why do you think that is, and what does the setting give you as a writer?
There are a number of parts of Britain that have been neglected over the past 30 or so years, but the Midlands has been beaten with a particularly big stick. It’s the region of Shakespeare and the industrial revolution, it has a population bigger than Scotland, and has three European cups at football, but at some point it dropped out of the national discussion. Maybe it became inconvenient. It was better to sell the fiction of London’s financial district than to discuss the realities of post-industrial Britain. My parents’ and grandparents’ generations knew that when they left school they could go to the factories or mines that each town was built around, and all of that was pulled away in the space of a decade and never replaced. It makes it the perfect setting for crime fiction.

There’s a potent strain of social commentary in Old Gold, do you feel authors have a responsibility to address issues beyond the narrative?
I wouldn’t want to say that all writers have to do it, but it’s what I like to read and write. Everyone needs pure escapism every now and then, but I think writers have a great chance to wrestle with big questions, as long as we don’t presume to have all the answers.

You blog weekly at Do Some Damage. How important do you think social media are for writers and readers?
I think the key word is social. Our modern tools – blogs, Twitter, emails – are all crucial to being an author. But they’re also just the latest version of a very old idea: it’s good to talk to people. The new tools mean we can do this faster and on a much larger scale. Twitter and Do Some Damage have been important to getting my name about, but the biggest step was having a coffee with Al Guthrie five or six years ago and following every bit of advice he gave me. So people need to get the balance right between the social and the media.

What’s coming up next for you?
I’ve just sent book two off to the publisher, and it’s due to be published some time in the winter. It’s called Runaway Town, and it’s a fresh challenge for both Miller and me. There were a lot of subjects I was scared of writing about, and some places I was nervous to take Miller to, so I took each of them on in Runaway Town.

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