Profusion Publishers - Independent British Publishing House, based in London


Interview with Mike Phillips by Romanian writer George Arion

Interview with writer Mike Phillips by Romanian writer George Arion taken at the end of November 2010

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George Arion: You have a name that is extraordinarily fit for a detective. Have you ever been tempted to practice this profession? Your looks certainly help – you inspire force and trust. If – God forbid! – I would be in need of a detective, I wouldn’t hesitate to use your services.

Mike Phillips: Well thank you for those kind words, but I think my looks and style developed in a very different context. I think the impression I give comes from my youthful experiences, and I’ll pick out two of them which I think left a very strong mark on my personality. The first is to do with the period in which I left university, having gained my degree, and started looking for work. In those days my qualifications counted for nothing, because of the colour of my skin. The employers who were hiring my white former classmates - the Government, the big firms etc - would have nothing to do with me. So for a time I was unemployed, and I even found myself sleeping on the streets for some months. I never forgot that experience and I developed a strong sympathy for people in that situation. A couple of years later, me and my friend Vince, persuaded the local authority in London to allow us to occupy an empty house, which we used to start a hostel for homeless young men. In that position I needed to mobilise a high degree of personal authority in order to act as a buffer between the young people and various authorities, as well as a high degree of sympathy and reliability, in order to gain and keep the trust of the inhabitants of the house, because most of them were already in some kind of trouble when they came to me. I was only twenty two years old at the time, so when many of my university friends were dancing the night away, I was in a police station trying to get someone released or teaching illiterate young men how to read and write, or attempting to stop them engaging in some anti-social action.  I think I was too young for such serious and stressful work, and it left its mark on me in ways that were both good and bad.

The other experience I would mention as shaping my personality was about being a broadcaster. The difference from print journalism is all about personality. Ironically I got into broadcasting when the BBC asked me to make a documentary about my work with young delinquents. After I made the film and it was broadcast various media outlets kept asking me to work for them, and, in the end, the documentaries took over from real life. Some years later I was working as presenter of a BBC World Service programme called Meridian, about the arts and culture. We conducted about three live interviews every broadcast. In the nature of such programmes one might find oneself, at one moment, interviewing a pop singer. Then half an hour later questioning a senior politician. Preparation, memory and grasp of detail was crucial, but the real skill was learning how to enter and share the psychological space of one’s subject. This involved body language, facial expressions, tone of voice and the ability to control the direction and shape of the conversation without seeming aggressive or domineering. After a while the techniques became part of one’s personality, because I had to get on the right track within a few seconds in order to make it all happen in the best possible way. This created an interesting intensity to the relationship when the interviewee entered the studio. For fifteen minutes every interviewee became the most interesting person in the world. Sometimes the intensity became a bridge between the world of the studio and real life. I remember interviewing a movie actress who had been starring in an important film and during that fifteen minutes we established a relationship which continued for years - as if it had been a kind of fascination at first sight, but it was really all about what had happened in the interview. As a slight digression, I must say that, because of this, I identified strongly with the start of the relationship between Mladin and Michaela in your book Attack in the Library. I knew how true it was.

Finally, I’ve told you all this because I suspect you’re talking about the fictional detective - a private dick according to Chandler, Hammett etc. In real life detectives are usually employed by the state, and their priority, whatever their personal commitments might be, is to impose and reinforce the dictates of the criminal justice system, which as you know, is sometimes influenced by politics - however democratic the state is - to an unfortunate degree. The detective I hope you recognise in my personality is someone driven by a personal morality and a commitment to understanding the problems of individuals, that is, someone who is moved by his or her own commitment to a personal network of beliefs, and a personal vision of society.

GA: Let’s get on to more serious matters. Did the experience gained by Mike Phillips as a journalist left its imprint on the writing of Mike Phillips the author?

MP: Yes. It certainly did. Part of the reason was about my experience, another part was about the ideas which seemed to me central to the art of novel writing. Honoré de Balzac was my literary hero at the time that I started thinking about the craft, and it seemed to me that he had written about France in the way that a good journalist might, assimilating and using elements of sociology and anthropology in exactly the way that good journalists do. In his Comédie Humaine he had set out to explore the lives of individuals within each different sector of French society. This was an inspiration to me and I started out with my first novel - Blood Rights - to examine every level of English society from the point of view of a migrant. I think I had twenty volumes in mind, but after my third novel my intentions began to change. This was because the process of novel writing itself changes the writer, and new aspirations and desires begin to appear, out of the blue. But this ambition to rival Balzac acted as a bridge between journalism and fiction writing for me, because there are two major elements journalism offered which are important to a novelist.

First, is the fact that journalists encounter a broad range of people in all manner of professions. In these encounters the journalist’s job obliged him or her to listen carefully to voices, to study behaviours, and to attempt an understanding of the environment, the customs and the habits of his subjects.

This range of encounters is useful at another level. Early in my career I worked in the newsroom of BBC Radio Manchester. My job was to present two news items every day, with interviews recorded on a portable tape recorder. So I would start at about 5.30 am and spend the day dashing around schools, factories, and other workplaces recording individuals and scripting stories for the news bulletins which went on throughout the day.

At the time Manchester was still the centre of a busy industrial area of steelworks, foundries, factories, coal mines and so on. Only the fact that I was a journalist permitted me, an archetypal outsider, to gain access to the lives and work of the people in the district.

Even then, it struck me that most young novelists I met, were graduates who began writing before they had any working experience or any broad understanding of such people as factory workers. So they actually had no idea about how most of their fellow citizens worked, lived, spoke or spent their spare time. I was in a different position, in any case, but my work as a journalist had already propelled me into a new relationship with broad groups of people, my fellow countrymen, about existence I would never even known, had I not been a reporter. As time went on the venues in which I worked changed, and I became equally familiar with the cultures of artists, politicians, lords and ladies, athletes, and corporate businessmen. When I began writing my first novel I had, at my fingertips, the images of many different personalities along with their characteristics.

The second important element novelists might draw from journalism is an understanding of how social change and social policy may be influenced by groups and individuals. As a novelist I couldn’t stop my self asking questions suggested by my journalistic background. What is the connection between certain new buildings and certain politicians? How did the habits of certain groups influence changes in the infrastructure of a town, and so on.

As a novelist I found all of these elements emerging from journalistic practice played a crucial part in the basic plots, the development of character and direction of the narrative.

GA: You were born in Guyana. Is that place reflected in your [literary] writings?

MP: Well the answer to that is yes and no. I only have one essay about my childhood in Guyana which is at the start of my book of essays and short stories entitled London Crossings. On the other hand, my earlier novels are full of echoes of my state of mind when I first came to Britain in 1956, and it seems as if I’m using a lot of imagery drawn from childhood experiences to contrast with the British environment. I write about the rain and the colour of birds’ feathers, and the contrast in the way people behave. It was not conscious and I’m only aware of doing it in hindsight. This is because I began writing in a context where to be a black migrant made you a foreigner - an alien - and people expected me somehow to be writing about Guyana where I was born rather than London where I grew up. Of course, by this time I knew very little about Guyana and my greatest wish was to explore in my fiction the conditions and environment of the place where I had grown up - London. So I rather resisted the pressure to write about Guyana, South America and the Caribbean. In the future I may return to some of those memories and begin trying to find a way to write about them.

GA: What were your literary models?

MP: Well I don’t want to use the word model, because I never consciously modelled myself on anyone. I’d prefer to talk about influences. These come in various shapes and sizes, but the most important ones divide up into three or four levels of approach, for example - content, structure, style and language, and tone.

I mentioned Balzac and I think the point there is that Balzac was the sort of writer who gave me a sense of entitlement - the idea that it was the novelist’s job to dissect his society and to offer the reader a contrasting moral vision. I think about Zola in a similar way. I remember reading Zola as a teenager, shocked, horrified and filled with a kind of despair at the thought of having to compete in the same trade as such a giant. I haven’t felt the same thrill reading fiction since then, but I guess that writers of that kind left me with the persistent notion that great writers had to be engaged with their environment, had to discuss and celebrate the lives of ordinary people with all their problems, and had to be filled with an extraordinary passion. I think of it differently now, but I still feel the content of my work is guided in some way by the effect those authors had on me.

I could talk for hours about the literature which shaped my attitudes to what I wanted to say. As a young migrant living in the heart of the imperial power I found myself seeking out the sort of writers who had something to say about the racism I experienced, such authors as James Baldwin, and a group of novelists from the Caribbean, such as George Lamming. In these texts I explored methods of describing and analysing cultural conflicts like the use of dialect. The consequence of empire is that, all over the world, there are millions of people whose native language is English, but who have never been anywhere near England. The result is that a broad variety of dialects based on the English language have emerged from an amazing variety of landscapes and cultures. All of these have their own history, their rules and their own style, all of which have to be understood in order to achieve a detailed grasp of the specific culture. At the same time the products of these local cultures must obey the rules and conventions of their official language - English. The same could be said to a lesser degree of other European languages - French, Spanish, Portuguese, Dutch etc. Writers like myself, born under colonial regimes, and fluent in both a dialect and standard English, faced a contradiction which our novelists, during the middle of the 20th Century, struggled to resolve by their use of language and their characters relationship to it. The linguistic issue is still the subject of debate, but by the time I started to write novels, the struggle against colonialism was over, and the questions of nationality and identity had taken on a character which the post-colonial writers could never have imagined. So I took from the black writers of the mid 20th Century black diaspora an interest in politics, language and cultural collisions, but I always knew that my directions would have to be more innovative and radical.

My problem was, as it is now, about style, and here I have to mention Hemingway, who I loved because of his incredible discipline in the use of words, his miserly use of adjectives, his ability to create complex characterisations without rambling over the character’s entire lifetime, his ability to pack amazing emotional resonances into two lines. Sometimes I would be reading Hemingway and I’d look at the last paragraph and say - how did he do that? It was the first time I really got the point of style, and since then I’ve been deeply interested in the use of style and language as a tool for achieving certain effects.

All of which brings me to the elephant in the room - the Private Eye tradition created by such novelists as Raymond Chandler and Dashiel Hammett. These were books I grew up reading and over and over again, and their plots, their rhythms, their satirical approach to their society became part of the background to my thoughts about writing.  This was largely unconscious, because when I initially set out to write novels I resisted the idea that these were my models, largely because they were American and it was my intention to be seen as a writer about London and England generally - not as a sort of sub-American fraction. On the other hand, once I decided to write a crime fiction the influence was irresistible and found myself, without consciously knowing it, using the structure and the approach I had learnt from Hammett and Chandler. My detective was actually a journalist, but the infrastructure of his life and his relationship with society bore a strong resemblance to the classic Private Eye. This was something I only grasped in hindsight, rereading my early novels, because it was actually my reading of Graham Greene’s early novels, such as Brighton Rock, which convinced me that the genre of crime fiction offered a legitimate vehicle for mobilising my other ambitions as a novelist. When I first read Greene’s crime fiction I was startled and impressed by the way he used a realistic and detailed portrayal of the urban landscape in London and Brighton, almost as a character in the novels, and this is what I was trying to do for my own areas of London. Ironically, I only went back to reading American crime fiction after my second novel had established me as a well known crime fiction writer.

GA: What is the aim of the series featuring Sam Dean?

MP: The aim of the Sam Dean series is more or less what I said before. I started out trying to explore different aspects of British society from the point of view of a migrant.  I wanted to show how the society looked from where I was standing. For one reason and another, after a few books the world seemed to get much bigger and more complex than I imagined at the beginning, but when I return to Sam Dean I’ll pick up that intention where I left off.

GA: What kind of person is Sam Dean, in fact? Does he have something of your personality? Can we say you identify with your character?

MP: I think of Sam as his own man - someone with an independent way of thinking which he is not afraid to express, and as someone who is not limited or confined by conventions. Maybe he has something of my personality. He’s open, friendly, but not someone you can push around easily, which is how I think of myself. He’s likes people, but would choose to be alone rather than be obliged to conform to someone else’s standards. I identify with all that, and the situation is complicated by the fact that Sam has a lot of my experiences and emotions - but he’s not actually me. He’s braver, stronger and smarter.

GA: Please give me a quote of Sam Dean’s that is representative of him.

MP: ‘People live as best they can, and good luck to the ones who can find help. Living by one set of rules or the other might make you feel more secure, but the truth is that there’s no guarantees. The way I see it, we’re all in trouble.’ - from An Image to Die For.

GA: How was this hero received by the reading public?

MP: My first novel featuring Sam Dean was Blood Rights broadcast as a 3-part serial by the BBC in prime time. I was the first black author of any genre get this sort of treatment, so I imagine that would signify that Sam was very well received. Each of the Sam Dean books, as it happened, actually sold the film rights and was translated into several different languages. So in commercial terms Sam was a success. The problem was the very narrow boundaries in which that success took place. All too often white readers projected their prejudices on to Sam, seeing him as the equivalent of a Chester Himes cop who would be taking them on a violent tour of black slums, for instance, and on the other side of the coin, for many readers, he disappointed them by not fitting their preconceptions. Instead, he was too intelligent and thoughtful, too engaged in his environment and its politics etc to match their view of what sort of person he should be.

GA: What can be explained/deduced from this extraordinary worldwide success of crime writing?

MP: I don’t think that the worldwide success of crime fiction is extraordinary.  On the contrary it seems entirely logical to me.

First, we must remember that the stories are nearly always coherent, easily understood and exciting. They outline a puzzle which the reader has to solve by continuing to the end of the story. In this way crime fiction sucks the reader into a pleasurable vortex of forgetfulness - an instant removal from the cares and worries of everyday life.

Second, most of the crime fiction narratives deal with the lives of the ordinary people who make up a cross section of society, with their routine attempts to create a safe niche in their environment for themselves and their families. Crime fiction also outlines their extraordinary passions and the mistakes they provoke, as well as with the effort people must undertake to maintain themselves on the right side of the line drawn up by society, between safety and danger.

Third, crime fiction nearly always creates plots and characters which are recognisable to the average person, and uses the voices, the landscapes, and the physical and social environments which anyone and everyone can recognise. At some point, whatever the quality of the writing or the nature of the plot, everyone recognises themselves in some aspect of crime fiction.

Fourth, crime fiction offers an urgent explanation for the smaller mysteries of life.  Many of us live in a bewildering landscape, hiding in the caves of our houses and apartments, surrounded by events which are not only uncontrollable but also inexplicable. Sometimes it is as if we hear gunshots in the distance at night, and our response is to turn over and bury our heads beneath a pillow, then go back to sleep. But the mystery is disturbing, however hard we try to forget. Somewhere in our minds we know that there are things happening around us about which we know nothing. The same is true of topical events - the news. Crime fiction offers us an instant connection to the brutal and astonishing events happening in each and every neighbourhood in our time. Open a newspaper anywhere and you’re assailed by images of murder, theft, assault. Crime fiction offers explanations of the strangest developments, and helps to restore our sense of agency and control by giving us the illusion of knowledge about this hidden, mysterious and dangerous world - opening a window through which we can, in safety, view people and events from which we would shrink in real life.

Fifth, crime fiction is part of an attempt to fill a moral vacuum. By tradition crime fiction has always been structured around (a) an attack on some kind of order, (b) the disruption of that order, and (c) a restoration of order organised by the detective. In European and US society of one hundred years ago moral order was practically indivisible from social and religious order. Much has changed since then. The social order (I.e. an order organised and guarded by the state) is no longer automatically supported by morality and religion. Religion itself can no longer be confident of being the sole moral arbiter of our secular societies; and even in societies where spirituality remains an important value, church functionaries are not able, necessarily, to command such a role. Crime fiction, however, provides a popular platform where morality is discussed and its shifting relationship to notions of crime and justice continually explored. Crime fiction, says, for instance, that murder and theft are wrong, that the manipulation and repression of individuals requires investigation and judgement, that we are entitled to test the concept of justice against our own personal sense of morality, and that we are also entitled to define the nature of injustice in terms of its effect on individuals like ourselves. These are features of a moral consensus which crime fiction takes as the immutable moral order it then subjects to the traditional formula - attack, disruption, resolution.

All these elements are crucial to the success of crime fiction, both from the point of view of the reader and the writer. As our world becomes more and more individualist and globalised crime fiction offers one way of exploring how we might be able to live and retain our belief in our humanity in a constantly changing, uncertain and ambiguous moral environment.

GA: Competition is harsh on the market. Is there a secret to making one’s name in these conditions?

MP: Ah - if only I knew. But I can make a guess. One is about longevity - cultivating the reader over a period of time with a certain standard of work. Another is about offering the reader a consistent and likeable protagonist. But the problem is getting people to read the book first and this is to do with the magic of marketing, with the writer being prepared to visit and encounter the readers face to face. If people like you and feel that you care about them, they’ll buy the book. It’s as simple as that - but of course, there’s also a minefield to do with the presentation of the book and the response of the media. All this can be managed - and from time to time an author emerges through having a very good and interesting background story or a charismatic self presentation. But having said all that I really don’t know. I always suspect that one day I’ll lay down some very firm and convincing rules, then next day some young writer will come along and everything I said was wrong.

GA: What do you think could destroy the high status enjoyed by crime novels nowadays? How do you think the future will look like for crime writing?

MP: Well actually nothing. Crime fiction has had to suffer the stupid bad writing, authors obsessed with violence or sado-masochism and even worse. The genre survives because in general it’s saying important and interesting things which people want to hear. I think as more of the world’s population enter the individualistic, cruel and delightful world of oppression and release associated with our capitalist economy, we’ll need crime fiction more and more as a tool for understanding ourselves and our lives.

GA: There are numerous volumes coming from respected authors that analyse this phenomenon. Should we understand that crime novel is no longer regarded as a para-literary phenomenon?

MP: Well yes and no.  People who understand and are interested in literature make an effort to grasp the literary virtues of the genre. But not many people have that grasp, and too many people who should know better automatically associate crime fiction with bad writing and meaningless violence. At the same time most intelligent people can work out that crime fiction is now a staple, unassailable ingredient of our popular cultures in Europe, part of the cultural idiom - the building blocks that creative people all over the world use in the assembly of music, cinema, dance, opera and fiction. The techniques even creep increasingly, into the structure of documentaries and news features. Its effect on literature is incalculable and I can’t think of one respectable novelist or playwright in the US or the UK who doesn’t at least play with aspects of the genre. This is not to say that they do it well, but you can’t have everything. The importance of crime fiction has been underlined by the fact that it has been such a powerful base for the most respected of realist TV drama - such as The Wire. Yes. Many respected critics and commentaries in our world (US and UK) take the genre very seriously as literature, but most of them are not quite yet good enough to say much that is useful about it. We await the day when a crime fiction novel enters the shortlist for the Booker Prize - and that is very long overdue.

GA: Besides being an author, you are also an editor What are the interests of Mike Phillips the editor?

MP: Oh my interest is to publish works of crime fiction which will be informative, illuminating and entertaining about the society and the environment from which they emerge. Part of that interest is also about the desire I share with my colleagues and partners, to offer a wider network of resources to people in Western Europe in their attempts to understand the culture of such countries as Romania.

GA: What is the role you enjoy the most and feel more at ease in? Writer? Journalist? Editor?

MP: I have to say that I feel most fulfilled as a writer but I wouldn’t say I enjoy writing. It is, as you know, a solitary, emotionally draining process which no one except other writers really want to tolerate. You feel happy when you finish one book, then you feel miserable and angry until you start another, then you feel restless and haunted until you end it, then you feel miserable again till you start the cycle again.  Oh yes - definitely writing.

GA: With the last question I also want to tell you a secret: if you will indeed publish next year Romanian crime authors in English, you will live forever in the history of Romanian literature, together with Ms Ramona Mitrica, as a pioneer and opener of new roads.