Q&A WITH CAL SMYTH – SEX AND DRUGS AND BALKAN NOIR

Cal Smyth
Cal Smyth

Every week we feature a Q&A session with one of our Crime Cymru authors. This week, Cal Smyth offers a fascinating insight into the real stories behind the inspiration for his books and sees coffee in a new light.

Give us a brief introduction to you

I always wanted to explore the world and to write stories. So after dropping out of Uni to be a gardener in London for three years, I lived in Serbia, Japan, Mexico & Italy. Two marriages and one son later, I completed an MA in Screenwriting and my first crime novel was published. I now live with my teenage son in Wales and I have a Royal Literary Fellowship as an author, helping students at Swansea University with their writing skills.

What could you not live without?

Well I would say love and sex, but as I survived lockdown without either, I’m going for coffee & writing. I need my morning espresso and I need to write. I guess like a lot of people during lockdown, I had time to confront various thoughts and fears. In my case, I also went through a heart-breaking end to a relationship. With the sadness of losing someone from my life, I went to a dark place about life and writing. I’d just finished my latest novel, a sci-fi thriller about the merging of AI and humans, and wondered if it was all worth it. But it is writing and the need to create which drives me. So I went for early morning beach runs, made myself coffee and edited Trans-Humanity, knocked out serialised audio thriller The Emotion Killer and planned a new psychological thriller called The Heartbreakers.

What’s your earliest writing memory?

A few years ago, my mum was clearing out boxes and found a short story, written in felt-tip on folded paper. The title was ‘Cops and Robbers by Cal Smyth aged 5 and a half’. I don’t remember writing it, but maybe that was the start of my life in crime fiction. In my family, our mum brought us up with stories and laughter. I don’t know when I first started writing, but I was always imagining things. As a father, I have tried to pass this storytelling on to my son. When my son was about the same age, we wrote a short fairy tale called Balti Balti, about a misunderstood giant who was feared by castle inhabitants. I don’t know if he will recall it when he is an adult, but even as a cool teenager, he has secretly kept the story.

Could you tell us about your writing routine?

For several years, I’ve had a similar routine. First, ideas bubble around in my mind and I make various notes. It might seem like I’m doing very little, but it’s an important stage (With my Balkan Noir series, I also did a lot of note-taking research). Next, I outline a detailed plot structure and character bios. Then I fill notebooks as I write a first draft of the novel by hand. Once I’m in the writing zone, I’m completely immersed and focused on that. I wake up early and I write for as many hours I can fit in the day, on an adrenaline rush akin to sex and drugs. Typing the chapters up is the first editing stage, as changes are made from notebook to laptop. I always make sure I get feedback as every writer needs this and then make editorial or proofreading changes. And it’s always the re-write which is harder work than the writing itself.

With my latest novel, it was slightly different in that I typed straight onto the laptop because I wanted this direct connection with technology and to be able to improvise more. I also took a break and got feedback after the first few chapters because I wanted to make sure I was getting inside the characters’ minds.

Most writers think getting an agent is the golden key to traditional publishing. Would you agree?

Yes. I don’t have an agent. My novels are published by Fahrenheit Press, who I love. It’s an independent publisher with a great list of crime writers. But as it’s not a traditional publisher, there’s no advance payment and there isn’t the finance to carry out huge marketing campaigns. To get a mainstream publisher, you almost always need an agent.

A good agent can change your writing career. For years, Don Winslow wrote critically-acclaimed crime novels, including the first in his Cartel series, The Power of the Dog. He’d had many novels published, but wasn’t making a good living from it and was ready to pack it all in. The agent Shane Salerno changed Winslow’s publisher and the rest of the Cartel series became bestsellers with film rights sold.

How to get an agent is another matter. Obviously you can manage to write an amazing novel that everyone loves and realises immediately will be a hit. Or you have to find a way in. The agents I’ve met or had correspondence with have been professional and very useful with their feedback. But there are many barriers to being taken on by an agent.

In response to the MeToo and BlackLivesMatter movements, the need for gender and racial equality has been rightly highlighted (check out Crime Writers of Colour for cool list of writers). Another important issue is class. In a diversity and inclusion survey by The Publishers Association, 18.8% of people who work in the publishing industry went to fee-paying schools. As only 7% of the UK population have private education, this is a big discrepancy. What this implies and the Common People project has shown to be true is that authors often get taken on by agents due to private networks.

This might seem depressing. But there are now more ways than ever to get published and you can create your own networks. I love being part of Crime Cymru for example. As a collective of Wales-based crime writers, we are all mutually supportive. I’ve attended events, been on author panels and been given connections to agents by being a Crime Cymru member. I also love the group of authors at my publisher Fahrenheit Press. During lockdown, we had weekly zoom sessions as we created a YouTube channel for author readings. On screen, were crime writers who are male & female, black & white, gay & heterosexual, all supporting each other.

Have any of your plots / characters been influenced by real events / people?

Yes. The Balkan Route is a fictional detective novel, but the characters and plot are based on interviews with police inspectors and a drug route that actually exists. The Woman with a Bullet in her Leg is a fictionalised biography / real-life thriller. The Clan is a mafia biopic that chronicles the rise & crackdown of Serbian criminal clans over a decade. And Balkan Warriors fictionalises a real police operation to bring down the Balkan cocaine cartel. So the whole series is very much influenced by real people and events.

Tell us a little about your character’s background.

For all the characters in the Balkan Noir series, whether set in the present or the past, life in Belgrade in the 90s has a huge impact. The aftermath of the Yugoslav War, Western sanctions and hyper-inflation created a situation where crime thrived…

In The Balkan Route, the police inspector must delve into the past to investigate present-day corruption. In The Woman with a Bullet in Her Leg, the protagonist strives to escape a life of hedonism and crime. In The Clan, the various larger-than-life characters take to crime because they see it as the only or best option to succeed in life. And in Balkan Warriors, a relentless police inspector pursues a cocaine kingpin because he doesn’t want Belgrade to slip back into being a city of crime.

This might seem hard to comprehend for Western readers, but post-lockdown as a global recession hits, I suspect we’ll see a big rise in crime. And just as much corruption exists in other countries, it’s simply more hidden.

Do you research online or talk to professionals or both?

For my Balkan Noir series, I did a lot of research because I wanted the novels to be authentic. I interviewed police inspectors about the Balkan drug route and was assisted by a linguist with a bullet in her leg who provided lived-experience insights into the Serbian underworld. I watched documentaries like See You in the Obituary which depicted criminal life in 90s Belgrade. I also gained access to archived documents about The Zemun Clan and police operation Balkan Warriors, as well as reading translated biographies of journalists and drug kingpins. I visited Belgrade (where I lived in the 90s) in order to capture the location within my writing. And I ended up getting the woman with a bullet in her leg out of prison. So it was very immersive research.

For my latest novel, Trans-Humanity, I researched about AI to make sure I knew what I was writing about. Before writing the novel, I read books such as To Be a Machine, checked online sources for information about AI development and had fascinating skype calls with AI experts. The research wasn’t as immersive as with the Balkan Noir series, as the novel is more imaginative sci-fi thriller rather than fictionalising real-life crime. But a lot of thought still went into writing it and many of the ideas were discussed on a road-trip from Barcelona to Marseille.

Who are your biggest literary influences and what made you decide to write crime fiction?

As a kid, I spent my time playing football in the backstreets or getting books out from the library. I think I read every book by Diana Wynne Jones and all of the Sherlock Holmes series – a combination of magical fantasy and detective stories. In my late teens, I was reading Camus and Dostoevsky, followed by Lermontov, Nabokov & Bulgakov. Existential investigations of the mind maybe. As an adult, it was Elmore Leonard & Jim Thompson that made me turn to crime. I devoured everything by both of these brilliant writers and knew what kind of fiction I wanted to write. With my Balkan Noir series in particular, I was influenced by Don Winslow with his Cartel trilogy, George Pelecanos with his Washington DC quartet and Giancarlo De Cataldo with his Romanzo Criminale set of novels.

Can you tell us about your work in progress / next book?

Trans-Humanity is an AI / Sci-Fi thriller which questions what it is to be human. Two Gen Z teenagers find out about the development of a new AI system, which will fuse with humans – the two teens setting off to Silicon Valley on a quest for Trans-Human nirvana. But the tech-billionaire who finances the system wants to be the sole Trans-Human God, while the original Trans-Human advocate has her own plans for the system and the scientist in charge of it is powerless to stop the speed of AI development…  

What’s next?

I am working with the producer / director Svetlana Dramlić to create an original crime-thriller TV series based on true-life events (In The Attacker, Svetlana tells the untold story behind the ‘Pink Panthers’ jewel gang). As a Balkan / British writing team, it’s proven a fantastic collaboration and we are looking to get the series into development…

I’m also working on serialised audio crime fiction with the musician and sound designer Will Wilkinson. And with the help of my teenage son, I’m adapting my novel The Clan as a possible console game. So three big creative projects with different forms of crime writing. And when my head is ready, I’ll start writing The Heartbreakers

Read more about Cal Smyth

To discover Cal’s books, follow the link here.

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