Author Q&A: Simon McCleave

The most rewarding aspect of my job as an editor is getting to work with talented writers to make their manuscripts the best they can be. This year I wanted to shout about some of the fabulous authors I’ve had the pleasure of working with, so I’ve invited them into sit down and chat about their work, what it’s like being a writer and their tips for those who also want to pick up the pen.

First to grace my metaphorical chair is Simon McCleave, the debut author of THE SNOWDONIA KILLINGS – out today. It’s a tense and action-packed crime novel set in the beating heart of Snowdonia. DI Ruth Hunter is an experienced but tired London copper, ready to embrace a more relaxed life in the country, but when she is faced with a gruesome, unexplained murder within hours of arriving on her new beat, she realises that this wasn’t the peaceful step back she bargained for.

Read an extract after the interview with the author.

Q: Simon, welcome! THE SNOWDONIA KILLINGS is your first novel. Tell us a little more about it.

The novel focuses on Detective Inspector Ruth Hunter, a veteran police officer in London’s Met, who has come to a crossroads in her life. The murder and mayhem of the South London streets have taken their toll. Ruth’s approaching fifty and she’s still trying to get over the unexplained disappearance of her partner Sarah three years earlier. A move to the peace and quiet of Snowdonia and the North Wales police seems like the ideal move. Of course, she is confronted with a brutal murder as soon as she arrives.  

Q: The setting – Snowdonia – is such a strong presence in the novel – almost a character in itself. Is there a reasoning behind the setting?

Like Ruth Hunter, I’m from South London but I’ve been in Wales for about a decade now and I still marvel at the beauty of landscape, which often feels completely timeless. When you add the Arthurian legends, myths and folktales, the whole area has this powerful, magical energy that’s hard to define. It also has a real spirituality. Snowdonia is the polar opposite to the chaos, noise and modernity of a city like London. I liked the idea of taking a character from London and plonking them in the middle of Snowdonia. 

Q: Who inspired you to start writing? Have your influences changed since then?

As I’ve reflected back, I’ve realised that I have been reading mysteries, thrillers and crime since I started reading. I read the whole set of Enid Blyton’s Secret Seven and Famous Five novels. I then moved onto Ian Fleming and read all of the Bond novels, as well as plenty of Alistair Maclean and Frederick Forsyth. More recently I’ve read lots of crime and noir – Graham Greene, James Elroy, Mankell. But in answer to your question, I guess I’ve always been drawn to mystery and crime. 

Q: So writing crime was the natural choice?

On the surface level, my favourite genre of books, films and television has always been crime. As a kid, I grew up watching gritty television series like The Sweeney. I then discovered Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola, as well as noir literature and cinema of the forties and fifties. I progressed through The Sopranos and The Wire. Crime is my first love. On a deeper level, I get to write about people at their most extreme in terms of emotions, vulnerability, anger or violence. I like to examine the darker side of human nature and explore whether it’s something we all have inside us somewhere. 

Q: You used to do a lot of work with television – is it different writing for the page as opposed to the screen?

The beauty of writing a novel is that you can actually write internal thoughts and dialogue. Often a great script is about what is not said. It’s all subtext. It felt liberating to be able to use words to explore a character’s thoughts, motives and inner life. I also like to be able to describe locations and how they impact on a character or a situation. That’s all left to the director and cinematographer in film and television. 

Q: What is the biggest challenge you faced when writing your first novel? How did you overcome it?

Despite being experienced in television and film, I had no idea if I could write a novel. I found that I lacked a lot of confidence in what I was writing to start with. I wasn’t sure if it was any good. I was brave enough to show early drafts to various people who were supportive. Once I knew I was on the right track, my confidence grew and I could just get on with writing it instinctively.

Q: Do you like to plan the action of your novels or do you let them write themselves?

Plotter or Pantser? The Snowdonia Killings was definitely exploratory. I knew what the twist and climax were, so I worked backwards from that. However, it’s very different to what was in my head initially. I’m now on Book 5 of the series and I’m plotting more and more. 

Q: DI Ruth is a police officer who likes to do things by the book. Was it difficult getting the details right?

I was determined not to write a detective who broke all the rules and was a bit of a maverick. For me, Ruth is interesting because she is a good copper who believes she can make a difference. If she has a weakness, then it’s that she cares too much. I have a childhood friend who became a police officer in the Dorset Constabulary. She’s the same age as Ruth so I picked her brains not only about detail, but also what it felt like to be a female police officer in the nineties onwards and how the Force has changed. I’ve also got brilliant contacts in Wrexham CID who have helped loads.  

Q: The novel ends on a gripping cliffhanger! Is there more in store for DI Ruth Hunter and her team?

Yes. Loads. I’m now onto Book 5 of the series, with plans for a sixth and seventh. The next in the series, The Harlech Beach Killings, revolves around the problem of county lines gangs from Liverpool and turf wars in North Wales. It’s very gritty and exciting as Ruth and Nick find themselves in the middle of what appears to be a gang assassination.  

Q: What is your writing process like? Do you have a routine? A favourite place to write? 

I try to write at home for two to three hours every morning after taking my cockapoo, Tilly, for a walk. I put on headphones and listen to TV and films soundtracks to get focused. I try for about 1000 words an hour but often fail. Sometimes I’ll go to a café and do the same just to mix it up.

Q: Do you have any writing tips to share?

Write about what you know about. I’m not talking about the details of your life, but what you have experienced and what you think and feel. If you are honest and passionate, that will come out in your work. 

Q: And finally, the most important question. What is your favourite writing snack?

Pots of coffee and dark-chocolate Hobnobs.  

Book Cover for The Snowdonia Killings by Simon McCleave

THE SNOWDONIA KILLINGS is out today and available as an ebook and physical book on Amazon.

The dark, heather-clad moorland of Denbighshire, North Wales. Its acidic heathland was home to yellow and green bilberry and gorse. Behind these uplands, the ominous, mountainous landscape of Snowdonia Park and then Mount Snowdon itself. Fynydd Snowdon. 3,600 feet above sea level. It was a dark, looming and timeless presence. Watching. Judging. Sometimes it felt like a strong, protective and even reassuring boundary. A geographical shielding arm. Other times it seemed to suggest a hidden danger, anger or even malevolence. A wronged past or resentment that would eventually be settled. Dark in summer, dusted with snow in the winter, Snowdon in Welsh, Yr Wyddfa – the Tomb.

Uneven grey mountain walls seemed to dissect the landscape randomly. Made from local dry stones, they dated back to the heyday of the nearby Penrhyn Quarry at the end of the nineteenth century. The walls had weathered and formed a rich growth of lichens, thriving in the clean air and fresh westerly winds. A rabble of butterflies also inhabited the mountain walls, including wall brown butterflies patrolling their territories, migrants such as the red admiral and painted lady, and the peacock butterfly observed on the wing as early as mid-February

Further up the mountain, moraine and esker gravel banks and pingo depressions had formed by the melting of buried ice at the end of the last ice age. It felt like a forgotten landscape. Not on the way to anywhere; just here. Somewhere where time stood still, and nothing changed from century to century. Epic in scope and the final refuge against invading Romans and Normans, Snowdonia was where Owain Glyndŵr, the last native prince of Wales, had been crowned.

Across the hills below, DS Nick Evans cursed the uneven ground below his feet. Lithe, handsome with a dark beard, he had an authority beyond his years. It’s far too early for this much running, he thought as he chased after a man twenty years his senior.

The older man puffed and grunted as he ran and slid, but Nick still wasn’t gaining any ground. Nick had known the man, Dewi Jones, since he was a boy. He had taught Nick geography at the local secondary school, Ysgol Dinas Padog, until he took early retirement and worked on the family sheep farm that covered 1,600 acres. The Joneses had run the farm for generations. Snowdonia was that kind of place. A series of tightly knit communities where everyone knew everybody and their business.

However, three days earlier, Dewi Jones had been implicated in an ongoing investigation into the production and circulation of child pornography in North Wales. When Nick arrived to ask him a few questions, Dewi simply ran. If he had doubts over Dewi’s guilt, then they had been crushed by the older man’s immediate dash for the back door. Nick had no idea where Dewi was going or how he thought he was going to escape. Step inDetective Sergeant Nick Evans of the North Wales Police, Heddlu Gogledd Cymru. Gogledd Cymru diogelach– A Safer North Wales.