Today I’m delighted to be hosting a stop on the Ngaio Marsh Awards Finalists Blog Tour and featuring one of the finalists – Ben Sanders.
Ben Sanders scored a multi-book deal and published his first crime novels while he was studying engineering at university. Now juggling engineering work and writing, Sanders’ most recent tales are action-packed thrillers starring former New York City undercover cop Marshall Grade, living in witness protection in the American southwest. His fifth novel, Marshall’s Law, is a finalist for the 2017 Ngaio Marsh Award for Best Crime Novel.
CWA Gold Dagger winner Michael Robotham has described Marshall Grade as a ‘noble loner’ who’s a great read for fans of Jack Reacher and Jason Bourne. Let’s find out more…
Marshall Grade is a pretty hands-on, action man kind of lead – what inspired you to create him as a character?
I like a good mix of noir in my crime, so I knew my hero (or anti-hero, as he turned out) would be the kind of self-sufficient gentleman who could get to the bottom of things, and be happy to throw the odd punch along the way. My previous three New Zealand-set novels had focused on an Auckland police detective, but when it came to my US books, I wanted to write about a character who was ‘outside the system.’ So Marshall (being a former undercover policeman) has the experience to move in criminal circles, but he doesn’t have the heft of a government institution to back him up. In plain terms he’s a vigilante. That of course puts him in competitive territory among fictional male heroes, but Marshall being a self-taught bruiser with a guilt complex means he has his quirks and points of difference.
You’re from New Zealand, but you set your most recent two novels (the Marshall Grade series) in the United States; New Mexico and New York. How did you go about researching where you set those stories, and making it as authentic as possible?
I’d been reading American crime novels since I was thirteen, and Western culture is fairly US-centric anyway, so I felt like I’d had good ambient exposure to Americana. But of course the best research is first-hand experience, so I visited all of the locations I wrote about. A big element of authenticity—or at least the impression of authenticity—is being confident in what you write. All fiction relies on speculation to some extent, but confidence helps camouflage the guesswork, and makes writing persuasive. For me, detailed knowledge of settings gave me confidence in other elements of my work. My process is very visual—I see everything in my head as I write—so once I could picture my backdrop, it didn’t feel like a great leap of imagination to then superimpose characters and plot. And travel obviously has benefits beyond the purely visual. The details are valuable too: what the seasons are like, how people speak, the price of coffee in a diner. Such things bring an extra layer of credibility to a story and add to the illusion that This Actually Happened.
Your books are fast-paced, and full of action. What are your top tips on creating tension and pace when writing a thriller?
‘Pace’ in mysteries or thrillers is all do to with how the author reveals information to the reader. A scene in a book should have a function: is it (for example) giving character backstory? Introducing someone? Is it purely for humour? Does it contain some crucial revelation to drive the story? (The most adroit scenes can do all of the above and more, simultaneously.) So for me, controlling pace amounts to being aware of what I’m revealing about character and story. Basically I want to ensure that all the interesting bits are parcelled out appropriately across the course of 350-odd pages. ‘Appropriately’ is an elastic term—pace can increase and decrease through the course of a novel, and it’s not until something is on paper that I can see whether it ‘works.’ Tension in my work often derives from a sense of looming catastrophe or conflict. Particularly in my American novels, I have competing characters who are in stark moral contrast to one another. By switching perspectives between various players and hinting at a common trajectory, I try to create an impression that something very bad could happen. But depending on the type of novel, the same emotional effect can be achieved by other means-I watched an interview with Lee Child in which he explains that the trick to suspense (or tension) is to simply pose a question and then refuse to answer it for three hundred pages.
Which books or writers in the crime genre do you enjoy reading, and why?
I love Michael Connelly and Lee Child, because I can’t get enough of their characters. I love Elmore Leonard because his dialogue reads like a wire-tap. I love James Ellroy for his style, and his ability to bend history to the shape of his vision. I could go on and on, but those guys are my top four.
Your first Marshall Grade novel, AMERICAN BLOOD, was optioned for a film before you even finished the manuscript. When you picture Marshall in your own head, which actor does he remind you of?
While the film plans were all-go, the Marshall in my head looked like Bradley Cooper. Now the movie’s been scrapped, Marshall just looks like me (tall and blond, but with bigger muscles). That way, I get to live an exciting thug-busting life by proxy, from the comfort of my desk.
You published your first crime novel while you were at university, and already have five under your belt. How has your writing style evolved over the years, and what are the biggest lessons you learned going from budding author to published to established?
My first novel The Fallen was accepted for publication in December 2009, but it wasn’t until I began reading Blood’s a Rover by James Ellroy on Christmas Day of that year that I appreciated the importance of style and voice. Ellroy is famous for his clipped rat-a-tat syntax, but the lesson I learned from Rover wasn’t so much that a book should be written in a bold and obvious manner; more that whatever the style, it needs to be consistent. Most of the crime writers I’d read before Ellroy used a very smooth and understated authorial voice, and so the need for consistency didn’t really occur to me. So that was the first way my writing changed: improving from a stylistic mishmash in my first book, to something more controlled in my later work. My American novels have all been narrated in third-person, but I adopt one character’s perspective for each scene. It’s made my style more colloquial, and I tend to use a lot of dialogue to move the story forward. My biggest lesson has been the importance of editing. Some people can write a book and nail it on the first try, but once I’ve finished a draft, I need to leave it alone for a week or two, and then hit it hard with the backspace key: invariably, something needs re-doing.
What other advice do you have for budding crime writers out there, who are trying to get their first book published?
Writing is a difficult trade to break into if you’re wanting to be published, so it’s obviously important to maximise your chance of being noticed. Research which agents and/or publishers are interested in crime, and when you’re sending them material, treat their submission rules as gospel—agents may have dozens or hundreds of submissions a year, so providing material in a format they don’t want will ensure a quick rejection. Most importantly, never submit anything that isn’t totally pristine. Write your novel or your sample, leave it in a drawer for a month, and then edit mercilessly.
A big thank you to Ben Sanders for popping onto the CTG blog today. For more information about Ben and his books hop over to https://ben-sanders.com
And to buy Marshall’s Law click this link: https://www.amazon.com/Marshalls-Law-Novel-Marshall-Grade/dp/1250058805
Be sure to check out all the other fantastic stops along the blog tour too.