An Interview with David Hewson
photo by Mark Bothwell
David Hewson is good with words. He started out in journalism, working his way up from a local paper in Scarborough up to the big London broadsheets. He has also penned over sixteen novels, including the fabulous Nic Costa modern crime series, all set in the atmospheric city of Rome. Even his tweets are well constructed, which makes error-prone amateurs like myself sigh and think, "I wish I could write like that." I am impressed by the way he paints Rome, a city and culture he is not actively part of, yet constructs like a native. It is a writing benchmark that I am aiming for, so naturally I could not resist asking David to answer a few questions for me here at the Literary Project.
Hello David! Have you always wanted to be a writer?
I always wanted to write because it seemed the one thing I was half good at. But the only writing job I could find at seventeen was working on a tiny local newspaper in Yorkshire. So I took it. It seemed better than school, even at £5 a week back in 1970.
How do you think your background in journalism influences your writing? Do you think it has been a help or a hindrance?
Helps and hinders. Journalism teaches you research, editing and not to be too precious with your words. But it also relies absolutely on fact, which fiction doesn't. There's an Italian expression, 'Better a beautiful lie than an ugly truth'. Fiction is about telling beautiful lies, and to do that properly a journalist has to kill the reporter inside him.
Do I write crime? Yes, the stories involve cops and crimes. But I don't think I fall into the usual procedural template. My stories tend to be about justice, about relationships, about living in a fractured society. All narratives need a problem. Crime stories simply use a crime as the starting point of that problem. I don't really do whodunits. More whydunits and they've been around for ages, in all sorts of forms.
Writing novels based in a different country and culture to your own must be difficult – how do you go about getting the "feel" right?
I'm not a fan of the idea that you should write about what you know. Writing about what you don't know makes you work harder. You have to create that world from scratch which renders it more vivid and 'real'. I did it the only way I could. I moved to Rome, studied Italian, invested in myself and my ideas. Luckily it's paid off so far.
How did you get your agent? Any advice for aspiring writers looking for representation?
Everyone asks that and there's no secret answer. It really is the way it tells you in the Writers' Handbook. Go through the motions, send out the letters, keep your fingers crossed. No short cuts I'm afraid. My principal advice in this area is: for pity's sake read the submission guidelines and follow them to the letter. Be professional, not a jerk. Accept rejection and learn from it.
What is your proudest moment to date, writing-wise?
Seeing all eleven of my Italian books bought for TV movies in one swoop -- and from an Italian-based production outfit, Bavaria's Rome arm (though they will be made in English).
If you could change one thing about the publishing industry, what would it be?
The gap between delivering a book and seeing it on the shelf. It's sometimes nearly two years for me and that's just too long
Can you tell us about The Fallen Angel?
The Fallen Angel comes from a real-life tragedy from 16th century Rome, the case of a young noblewoman Beatrice Cenci. She and her family were convicted of the murder of her father who was reputedly abusing her. They were savagely executed in front of the Ponte Sant'Angelo. Beatrice became in icon for the virtuous criminal, defending her own virtue. In the book we find a young Englishwoman facing what appears to be a rerun of the Cenci case. Is this coincidence or a deliberate echo? So my Roman cops set out to find the awkward truth.
What are you working on right now?
A standalone book set in Florence in 1986. I felt the need to write something that didn't have the constrictions of the 21st century. No DNA, no science, no internet, no mobile phones. Makes for a very interesting environment in which to set a narrative.
And finally, if you could sum up a key piece of writing advice for aspiring crime writers in one sentence, what would it be?
Read lots of books and try to understand what makes the ones that work for you pull of that trick.