Sunday 3rd of May, I was privileged enough to do an author chat with the absolutely awesome people at the UK Crime Book Club, as part of their Virtual Festival. In all it’s glory, I’ve reproduced it below.
Caroline Maston: As a new author – what inspired you to start writing crime?
Ben Bruce: Afternoon all, I’ll get started a little early here… Then again, by the time I finish replying, it might not seem like that.
I’ve always wanted to tell stories. My earliest memories at school all revolve around writing stories across lots of different genres. As I’ve got older, I’ve found the things I love, and I’ve looked to take inspiration from them. The reason I’ve started writing crime, is because that was the story that I had in my head at the time I thought, you know what, I’m getting nowhere fast with what I was doing at the time (which was trying to get a script optioned) how about I change tack, put it in a book and see if I can self publish.
Originally then, The Regulators was a script, that I was trying to pass off to Sky, which had in turn been born out of an idea I’d had for a continuation of the TV show 24, which was the show that made me fall in love with that sort of expansive yet action packed TV style that now makes up so much of our binge watch culture.
I love writing crime, The Regulators will continue for many years and I’ve a couple of other crime ideas kicking about in the back of my head at the minute, that are a bit closer to traditional crime fiction (but not quite) and I’ll keep coming back to it, but I know I need to try other things at some point too.
CM: Can you give us a little insight into The Regulators?
BB: Sure. The Regulators are a highly funded group of mercenaries. An international organization created by the Vehmic Courts of old. They deal with the crimes that the police won’t or can’t. I remember I was watching a documentary on BBC 2 around the time I started writing the first book, and they were talking about the frustrations the police had with getting people to testify against known gangsters. Everyone knew these people were guilty, but without evidence or testimony, they were carrying on and the police couldn’t prosecute. I wanted to explore the idea further.
It is at times a little over the top. If you’re looking for a police procedural, this isn’t your series. There are plenty of excellent writers doing brilliant jobs of that. I’m doing something where the handbrake of rules and regulations has been let off, and I’m doing it with a smile on my face. I want my readers to have fun, to want to turn pages and to come out feeling like they’ve seen justice served.
CM: Did you have to do a lot of research for your novels?
BB: I did, far more than perhaps I ever thought. Even though I’ve given myself an out by creating a fictional crime fighting organization, and therefore can make my own rules up, I still wanted to make sure that I was reflecting a real world that they lived in. That’s especially true of the technological side of things. In book one I spent probably far too long looking at the potential dispersal patterns for a suitcase nuke, and deciding where would be a good spot to contemplate detonating one. For that, I no doubt have a file with the secret services. Hi guys!
I’m also big on knowing my locations. I’ll try to visit as many as possible, but when that’s not always possible for practical or financial reasons, Google Earth is so useful. I like to get a feel for a place, because I think in some stories the setting is as important to informing your characters as the story is.
CM: Who designed your cover?
BB: My cover designer is the quite brilliant Sean Strong, who’s based up in Newcastle. I’m incredibly proud of the work he’s done for me. He gets my briefs and turns them into reality with minimal fuss. We’re currently working on the cover and artwork for Deadline, which is book three in the series, but I am really, really looking forward to doing something outside The Regulators series with him, just to recreate that buzz of coming up with something entirely new.
David Gilchrist: Sorry, you are a new to me author, where are your books set?
BB: Book one in the series was predominantly set in London, I think we might have ventured out to Kent for half an hour or so, before everyone started getting nosebleeds or something from all the countryside air and had to turn back. Mainly the action is around South London. I’d been staying around there with work and just wanted to access the vibe I had from around there.
Shadow of Malice sees most of the action taking place in Yorkshire. I spent a long time on location there for a Blue Light TV Docu-series, and I got very familiar with the trip between Leeds and Scarborough, and with anywhere that I start to spend a little bit of time in, I start to ask myself, what could be happening around here. Sadly for the people of the very beautiful Yorkshire Moors, I decided to place a paedophile ring in their midst. I am so very, very sorry for that, because it’s a beautiful place and deserved so much better!
The third book comes back to London to tie up the trilogy. It wasn’t what I perhaps envisaged at first, but given the nature of the plot, it made sense for me to head back there as that is the hive of villainy. In this series at least.
Samantha Brownley: Can you tell us a bit about your current release, The Regulators Shadow of Malice?
BB: Shadow of Malice is the Empire Strikes Back of this trilogy, if I can use a totally undeserved frame of reference. I mean that in the sense that it’s darker than the first book, simply by nature of the fact that at this point, they’re going after a paedophile ring, and whilst I like to have fun with my books, I don’t think you can really go down that route with a swagger in your step. It’s a heinous crime and you have to be mindful of that when you’re writing. You’ve got to reflect that in what you’re doing.
Without too many spoilers from book one, we find Jack Quinn in a different place from where he was at in book one. He’s not officially a Regulator anymore, he’s trying to retire. But he’s not the sort who can say no when he sees injustice, so he’s pretty soon back in the action. Meanwhile, Thea Watts is out of the NCA, and trying to find herself again, Adam has a new partner and he’s trying to find out how he fits into that senior role of a partnership, and Mo is like Jack, out of the Regulators, but trying to do the vigilante thing in a way that lets him sleep at night. All four of them are pulling at different strings of this web that has been created and without giving too much away, it’s up to them to expose a pretty big conspiracy.
I’m proud of it, it got shortlisted for an award, which is the only one I’ve ever entered, because normally I’m not into that sort of thing, so that was cool. I like it. It leads into Deadline very much, so the pressure is on now to get the whole thing to bed, because SoM deserves it.
SB: You are currently writing the third book in the Regulator series – how is that going and do you have a title to share with us yet?
BB: Yeah, Book 3 is Deadline. We’re working on a cover, it’s coming on good now. It’s been a little longer in development than I thought, for a multitude of reasons. First up, we moved last year, and between working the day job and that, I was knackered. I mean, seriously, come December 2019, I was out on my derriere, and at that point, I looked back through what I’d done so far and I wasn’t buying it.
I changed my approach to planning the story this time as well. I wanted to plan more to get that ending nailed, but something Cally Taylor said in her panel on Friday struck home, it felt like I’d already written it once, and I wasn’t getting the right vibe, I wasn’t evolving the story with the story, it was too rigid. So I cut a whole host of it out, including the big hook at the beginning and went from scratch. I’m far happier now. I wouldn’t speculate on a release, life has taught me not to do that, but we’re close. Very close.
SB: Did you write anything before the Regulators series?
BB: I’ve always written. Always. It’s not always been books either. Scripts, songs, blogs (sporadically) done stuff for music and video websties. I’ve just got a lot to say, and if I can’t chew your ear off with it in person, I’ll do it via some other medium.
The Regulators is the first thing of substance to go public domain however.
SB: Is it difficult trying to write with young children at home?
BB: No, and I’ll tell you why. If I didn’t have kids at home, I’d be far more energetic, have all this joie de vive and so on, and I’d be down the pub far more often. It’s a lot harder to write half cut or hanging than it is with kids around.
Truth be told (okay, there’s a little truth in the above too) I’m a very lucky guy, in that my wife is incredibly supportive. She comes from a family who knows the value of pushing yourself, her brother writes among other things. (I’m sort of like a poor man’s version of him in some respects. Don’t tell him I said that, it will make his day!) So sitting at home in the evenings vegging with the TV on isn’t something we do a lot of. We do some of it, obviously, but most evenings, once the kids are down, the laptop is out for me, she’s crafting, away we go.
I also get to work from home a fair amount of the time as well. Being freelance in my industry means I get quiet times between contracts, so I can have two weeks solid writing almost 24/7 and I can bash out a hell of a lot in that space. If this ever became my full time gig, I reckon I could write four or five Regulators books in a year. They might not be very good, but I could do it!
Strangely, with everyone off with Covid, and my work now dried up, I’m probably getting a bit less done. I don’t want to just drop all the childcare on the wife, that’s not who I am. So, yeah, they need to get back to school and nursery.
SB: How did it feel to be a semi-finalist in the 2019 Adventure Writers Competition?
BB: That was a weird one. I don’t do competitions. Writing for me, I don’t know, it isn’t something that you need to be competitive about. You can be good, and I can be good, and we can all be good, and I don’t feel the need to go and find some way to say I’m better than others. It felt like an alien concept to me. I like competition in football. I’m not slighting anyone else who does competitions, it’s a case of what’s good for you, you do. I just don’t buy it for me.
But… I get that it’s a marketing tool. So last year, I thought, you know what, I like this book. It’s good. Better than the first. Let’s get something behind it that validates that. So I entered the Adventure Writer’s Competition. It was the only one I went in for, because there’s so many, and you never know who’s just taking your money and giving the prize to their publisher mate’s new squeeze. (Does that make me sound paranoid?)
Then I got the email through saying I’d been shortlisted, and all of sudden it got weird. I read some of the other books and they were great, so it was a bit of a buzz to get that feedback that they thought I was on a par.
I wouldn’t necessarily do it again though. Being a writer I’m a fantasist, my brain is working on something all the time, and I found that I started fantasising about winning, about what my speech might be. That’s taking up time I could be focusing on what I’m supposed to be doing, writing books. That’s not cool.
That said, I’d be fine with a Booker Prize. I might consider having a swing at that. Or an Oscar.
SB: What are your most memorable moments as an author so far?
BB: The biggest moment for me was getting that first comment on my Facebook page from someone I didn’t know, saying they enjoyed it. I only ever wanted to make one person have a good time. Friends and family, you have to take everything they say with a pinch of salt, but praise from a stranger. Oh boy, that made it all worthwhile. Nothing detracts from that after that point. Plenty of people can not like it, but if one does, it’s a success.
Jason Kelly: Where are you from?
BB: Originally I’m from Nuneaton, which is famous at the moment for being one of the big swing seats in politics, and it was the sight of the U.K.’s first freestanding outdoor condom machine back in the late 80s. Now I hopped over the border to Hinckley. Small town life rules. I’d love to emigrate, get away to New Zealand or Canada, maybe back to my ancestral homeland of Scotland, but for now, we’re sticking. So I’m told.
JK: Can you tell us about your books? Are they series or standalones?
BB: They’re very much a series, but they can also be read as standalone. That’s a horrible cop out answer, isn’t it? Let me think about that a bit more. There’s a theme going through the first two, that I will tie up in book three. You could probably read Shadow of Malice without reading book one, but you’ll definitely need to have read Shadow of Malice for Deadline to make sense. I try and write it for people who’ve never read any of them before, half of my beta readers for Shadow of Malice were newbies to the series, which was great in informing me if there were things that didn’t make sense, and I’ll probably take a similar vein this time around.
Then when the next tranche of Regulators books come along, I’ll probably do a similar style, another trilogy, with three books covering three individual events that make up the same overall plot.
SB: Are there any authors who you have read everything by and await each now book?
BB: Lee Child is my craic when it comes to books. He was probably the reason I came away from scripts and into books. I remember hearing a review for 61 hours on Six Music, and picking it up at Smiths on my way home from work. I demolished it, because it was my sort of thing. A swaggering invincible hero just outside the rules. I can’t get enough of what he does and I’m gutted it’s all coming to an end in terms of Lee’s involvement, but I can’t wait to see where the series goes. I come from a background of gorging on TV and I don’t necessarily believe that a series dies with the writer. If anyone wants to write a Regulators book, and they’ve got a story that I think works, they can licence it, and have at it.
Matt Hilton is a writer who I had a similar reaction to when I read Dead Men’s Dust and I love Joe Hunter, although I’m not up to date on that yet. I’ve actually interacted with Matt a couple of times on social media, through a couple of the Facebook groups I’m on, maybe it was this one, maybe it was another, I’m sorry I can’t definitely remember, but that was so cool to actually talk to a guy who I admire so much.
JK: Are you a PT author?
BB: I am a part time author in that I have a day job and that limits what I can do. I’m not a part time author in that my brain is constantly working on new stuff every minute of the day. Seriously, I wish it would stop, because I’ve got a full time slate that it’s racked up for me, that will keep me going for the next decade.
I’d love for this to be my job. At the moment it’s not, and it’s a thoroughly enjoyable part of my life that makes me a nice additional income. If it stays that way forever, I’m lucky enough to have a job I love already so I can live with that. But I don’t want to live with that.
JK: What was the last book you read?
BB: Last book I finished was Boom Town by Sam Anderson, which tells the story of Oklahoma City. If you think that sounds dry and boring, you could not be further from the truth. It’s one of the best things I’ve read in years. That place is absolutely bonkers, and as such, is now a high entry on my list of places to see before I die.
JK: What authors did you read as a child?
BB: As a kid I remember devouring the Famous Five. That was the series that I really enjoyed. Kids having adventures, sticking it to the adults. Count me in. I loved Enid Blyton, but it does feel a bit dated now, and I read The Faraway Tree to my son a couple of years back, and I struggled with it, which feels a horrific thing to say.
I also read a lot of Judy Bloom, and I always remember reading Z For Zachariah by Robert C. O’Brien, which being a sci-fi nut, really stuck with me. Like a lot of teenage boys though, I dropped off reading when I hit about 14, when I discovered girls, music and a host of other things that are really bad for you.
JK: How long did it take to write your debut novel?
BB: From putting that first pen to paper, (or finger to key as it was) it took me about six months to get the first draft done, then another six months to edit, which was a bit of a shambles because the team I hired had issues and it all went a bit pear shaped. The idea had been there a lot longer however, and there was a script before that which was probably another three months prior.
JK: Have you got any hobbies?
BB: I always say that writing is my hobby, I just get paid for it, and to be fair, because it takes up so much of my time outside of work, it is my big thing.
Away from that, I’m a football fan, Nuneaton Borough and Manchester United, and being able to introduce my kids to that has been fun, even if my eldest has taken up Leicester as his team. I also love NFL. Probably more so than I do our football now, at least, from watching as a neutral. Sundays in the NFL season are sacred. I love the Philadelphia Eagles. Irrationally, but completely, obsessionally, all consumingly in love with them.
Then there’s music. Got my cans on now, listening to my 90s Classics playlist. For a short time I was in a band, did some solo acoustic stuff. Long story short, can’t sing. I’ve picked the guitar back up since we’ve been locked down. I might have an album in me one day. Maybe that’ll become my new evening hobby if I can make writing my full time career.
JK: Do you have the whole novel planned out before you start writing?
BB: Normally, no. I have an idea of where it’s going, I usually know how it will end but the characters so often have such an impact on the story and you only see their reaction when you’re in there with them. With Deadline, I tried it the other way, tried to plot it in every detail and it just didn’t work for me. Lesson learned, ripped it up, started again.
JK: Do you write in silence? Or do you have music playing in the background?
BB: Oh, I need music. Music soundtracks everything I do. I build playlists that fit the mood of the part I’m writing. I even curated a listening playlist for Shadow of Malice on Spotify. It’s on my website somewhere. I love music. It’s integral to everything I do.
JK: Have you got any pets?
BB: Alas, our house rabbit Tico shuffled off this mortal coil a little under a year ago. We’ve recently moved and we’re going to extend, so we didn’t want to get another pet in until the building work was done. Once that’s all good, we’ll get something in. Hopefully cats. Let’s see if I win that argument.
SB: Did you have characters such as Thea, Adam and Jack planned out before you started to write?
BB: Yeah, I know them quite well before I get into it. I do my characterisations, I can see them, I have chats with them in my head, I put myself in their shoes when I’m working through a chapter in bed at night. They evolve however, as they should do. The best example of that, is the character of Mo. I wrote him down originally as a happy go lucky analyst, easy going and chilled out. Oh, Mo. If only you knew.
SB: Which authors from your local area inspired your love of writing?
BB: Not George Eliot. Being from Nuneaton that was force fed down our throats, and when you force feed a teenager anything cultural, it does not go well. Truth be told, I don’t think there was anyone. I would struggle to name an author from Nuneaton. Lee Child was from Coventry, just down the road, but his locality had nothing to do with my love for his work.
SB: Did you celebrate the publication day for both Regulator books?
BB: No, oh man, there’s a story here. First time, it was just such a mess getting it edited and the palaver that went on with that, that come the time it was ready to go, I was just like, bang, there it is, done. We went away the weekend after with a group of friends and they all said some lovely things, but there was no big do.
I was planning to do something, even just a pub thing with Shadow of Malice, but my whole marketing plan went out the window. Our youngest had been ill and had a temperature and she ended up having a febrile convulsion in bed at like 6:30 in the morning. Worst 15 minutes of my life, I thought we were losing her. You never feel more helpless than when your kid is in trouble and you can’t do anything.
Anyway, long story short, she was fine. No long lasting effects (unless febrile convulsions cause sass, because she has an abundance of that. I’ll check with the Lancet.) but it was in the middle of launch week and I lost a whole day being in hospital with her, which meant I had work pressures and I just completely fluffed the whole launch of the book up. So many plans, that never materialised.
This time, there will be no do, because there will be no social gatherings. I don’t tend to have much look, do I?
JK: Have you got a favourite film?
BB: La Haine. I watched that aged 19, and I saw so much of the life I’d led in the years before that. Bored, hanging around the streets, not trying to get into trouble but being told we were just for being there. Sure, back then I didn’t appreciate all the racial and cultural issues that were also in play throughout that film. In no way am I, a middle class white boy from middle England, in any way as marginalised as Arabic, or Jew, or African immigrants in the Banlieue in Paris, but there was still enough of me in them, that I saw enough to emphasise. It moved me in a way no other film had moved me before, or since. And now I get the message as well. As I’ve grown and my world view has grown, that film has grown with me and I find more in it each time I watch it. It’s still so relevant, even now, and it shouldn’t be. How we’ve not learned the lessons from that film, I don’t know, but here we are. It’s a masterpiece.