Barry Maitland: Architect turned author

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image-barrymaitland200Barry Maitland is an architect turned author. His most recent novel is Chelsea Mansions, the latest in the Brock and Kolla series of crime novels.

Barry was born in Scotland and, in 1984, moved to Australia from London to take up a role as Professor of Architecture at the University of Newcastle. In 2000 he retired from that role to write full time.

His first mystery novel was The Marx Sisters, which was nominated for a John Creasey Award for Best First Novel. In 1995 the follow up to The Marx Sisters, The Malcontenta, was awarded the inaugural Ned Kelly Award for Best Crime Fiction.

Since then Barry has written and published 11 Brock and Kolla novels. Brock and Kolla are one of the first male-female teams in contemporary police fiction and they meet again in Chelsea Mansions to investigate the seemingly unrelated deaths of an elderly American woman and a Russian oligarch.

Click play to listen. Running time: 28.31

Chelsea Mansions

Transcript

* Please note these transcripts have been edited for readability

Valerie
Barry, thanks for joining us today.

Barry
It’s a great pleasure, Valerie.

Valerie
Now, tell us about your latest book, Chelsea Mansions, what’s it about?  How did this idea come about?

Barry
Well, each of the books in the Brock and Kolla detective series that I’ve been writing are set in London and when I’m looking for a new story I begin by going back to London and looking for a place that intrigues me.

One of the things that I became interested in was the way in which a large number of Russians who made a fortune during the late ‘80s and ‘90s had come to London with huge amounts of money, which they had more or less stolen from the Russian economy and were fugitives, really, who were now living in London in a much more comfortable environment.

There have been various stories attached to these about murders and attempted extraditions. So, I became intrigued in this and since many of them have settled in the Chelsea area of London, this was a very up-market area. I began to devise a story based on that and began to do research into it and so on.

So that’s — that’s the general background to it. It concerns and sort of mentions Chelsea Mansions in it, a very up-market square in Chelsea and the things that happened there when a Russian family moves in.

Valerie
Great, and Brock and Kolla, you’ve written many books about this male/female team now, how did they come about? What inspired you to write about a male/female team in a series of crime novels?

Barry
When I started writing the Brock and Kolla team there was a new rebirth, I think, happening in crime fiction begun by a number of women writers, people like Sara Paretsky in America, and Val McDermid in England, and Marele Day in Australia, writing about a new kind of detective figure, women, taking on a very strong role. I thought this was really interesting.

I have a niece who works in London for the Scotland Yard. By talking to her — her husband who’s also a policeman in the Metropolitan Police in London, I began to see how you could have a very interesting story built around two points of view, an older man detective and this young female detective coming into a man’s world and being very proactive, very positive in her role, so that they form equal characters, if you like, characters of equal importance in the stories. I thought that would be a really intriguing way to approach it.

Valerie
Is it difficult to write from a female perspective, to get into the head of a young woman?

Barry
Well, I haven’t found it difficult, in fact I found her voice to be in many ways more compelling and clear in my mind than the man. Of course, there’s many very powerful male characters that have been created by women writers and vice versa. So, I don’t really see that as a problem. I certainly haven’t had readers say to me, “Oh, you’ve got that wrong.”

Valerie
Now, you began life as an architect and now you’re a full time author. Tell us about that transition. When did you start turning your head toward writing?  What interested you?  What made you decide, to think, “I’m going to go into words instead of buildings?”

Barry
I’ve always enjoyed writing and reading fiction. When I was at school I used to read all the books I could get a hold of. Although I became an architect I also enjoyed writing so much. Over the course of when I was practicing and teaching architecture I wrote a couple of novels, which I sent off to publishers and built up a great box file full of rejection slips. I also wrote some architectural books, but fiction really always kept nagging at me.

Then finally in the early ‘90s I began to think about writing a crime novel because I had been reading a lot of crime and always enjoyed it. I found that crime fiction has quite a sort of discipline to it and I think that was good for me. I think it really made me focus my fiction writing and it was the one that got taken up by a publisher and took off.

I didn’t really imagine that it was going to be a series at first. I just wrote this one-off one. I set it in London really because I had those contacts in London with the police, which I didn’t have in Australia.

Valerie
Yes.

Barry
Now, I’ve found myself having to keep going back to London because the series has sort of taken over.

Valerie
It’s quite handy to have some relatives that work in Scotland Yard, isn’t it?

Barry
It is. It’s been very handy. I’ve been about to go out with the cops on the beat and see the world from their point of view, which has been a tremendously valuable experience for me because I think one of the things about crime fiction that’s really compelling for readers is the sense of realism, a sense that this is actually happening.

Valerie
Now, the creative process between architecture and writing, is it vastly different, or are there some parallels you can draw?  When you’re actually thinking of how to design a building, or a room, or a wing, or whatever, you really do need to have structure and a thought process of beginning, middle, and end, the same as a story.

Barry
Exactly, that’s absolutely right. Yes, the idea — the sense of structure of moving in a purposeful way through a series of events is very important, the kind of pacing of the experience.

The other thing that I think immediately comes to mind is the sense of place. Buildings are rooted to a particular place, they’re fixed there. Very often the location of the building is one of the most powerful things in shaping the design. I think the sense of place is a very powerful element in crime fiction, generally. When you think of Maygray you think of the atmosphere of Paris. Or, Raymond Chandler writing in Los Angeles, those places are so — so much an important part of the way in which the story is told.

That’s certainly been a very powerful factor for me, creating these locations in London based on real places and thinking of the kind of people who live there, the kinds of stories they have, the kinds of crimes they might commit.

Valerie
You obviously start off with that sense of place, what happens then?  How do you then think of the plot?  How do you then — as you say with crime fiction, you actually do need — even more than maybe other genres, you really need that structure because you really need to resolve an issue —

Barry
Yes.

Valerie
Do you plot the whole thing out or do you see where the muse takes you?

Barry
I do try to plot it out, but I find that I get to a certain point and then I just have to start writing, and it’s through the process of writing that the characters clarify themselves for me. But in terms of how I begin, I mean I go looking for what I think is going to be a really interesting place to set a story. I look at the kind of people who are living there.

One of the stories was set in a square in East London where a lot of contemporary artists lived and so it came out of that, Trace was the name of the book, exploring their lives and finding the kinds of ways that they live — it’s so interesting and different from the rest of us, as sort of celebrities of the art world.

And so that’s the kind of thing I’m looking for, places which have interesting characters and then the kinds of stories that they have. Once I can get into that I can do research into the history of the area, the history of — the kind of background of the communities that live there.

Valerie
With that research — do you do that research first, before you start writing, or as you go along and fill in the blanks?

Barry
Yes, I start by doing a lot of research. It takes me at least six months before I get into writing a book.

Valerie
Right.

Barry
Where I’m thinking up — I’m doing that research, I’m visiting the place, I’m talking to people, and I’m trying to clarify the characters who are going to play a part in the story. Sometimes they’re based on real people that I’ve met in these areas, other times they just develop from the role that I need for them in the story.

Valerie
Now, you were born in Scotland, but you moved to Australia in 1984 to become Professor of Architecture at University of Newcastle, but I understand that in 2000 you left that role to write full time. What made that decision to decide to become a full time writer?

Barry
Well, I actually came to Australia and started as Professor of Architecture at Newcastle in 1989.

Valerie
Right.

Barry
Sorry, ’84 it was. ’84 — that’s right.

When I retired in 2000 I had been doing that job for 16 years. I felt that I needed a change. By that stage the Brock and Kolla novels had become quite successful. They were being published in different countries around the world in translation and so on.

I decided that I was going to just concentrate on them and perhaps on other fiction, short stories I’ve had published, and also as you said, an Australia story, Bright Air, which I finally got around to writing, which was really terrific to shift that perspective away from London and write an Australian story.

Valerie
Tell us about Bright Air, which was published in 2008, why did you decide to move away from the very familiar Brock and Kolla series?

Barry
I just found it tremendously refreshing to be able to switch to a completely new setting with new characters, a different kind of story completely. It’s not a police procedural, although there’s a murder involved. Having lived, by that stage, in Australia for 20 years I really felt that I wanted to write with an Australian voice, to have Australian characters, and Australian locations.

Particularly, there were such wonderful settings available. The story is set partly on Lord Howe Island, which is a stunning location, but also in Sydney — well, one of the characters lives in Castlecrag, which plays an important sort of role in the story — the history of Castlecrag and the buildings there and so on. I really enjoyed that switch to an Australian setting and Australian characters.

Valerie
Now you mentioned that you previously — before you started writing crime fiction you used to read a lot of crime fiction. Do you still read a lot of crime fiction, but also immerse yourself in the crime world, with True Crime, or crime shows on TV, that sort of thing?

Barry
Yes, one of the things that you have to do, of course, is to keep up with what’s going on. The real life situation for a crime investigation is changing all the time and you do have to keep up with technology and the methods and so on, so I do try and do that and certainly sort of look at those shows and read them — True Crime.

But I also do read fiction. I think it’s important to get a feel for what other people are doing, it keeps you up to the mark to know what new ideas are about.

One of the things about crime fiction, of course is that it is constantly evolving, finding new forms, new writers, and that’s very exciting about it.

Valerie
Some authors tell me that they don’t read other writers in their genre while they are writing.

Barry
Yes.

Valerie
Is that the case with you?

Barry
I do understand that, yes. Sometimes it’s quite off-putting to try to pick up somebody else’s book with their different voice and their different perspective when you’re trying to sort of create your own, but sometimes, on the other hand, I find that sometimes maybe if I’m getting a little bit bogged down in my story it helps to read, not necessarily another crime novel, but maybe just another work of fiction by somebody who’s got a different way of expressing themselves.

As you’re reading it, it begins to kind of free you up from that preoccupation that you’ve got with your own problem. I have found that useful sometimes, as a way of sort of kick-starting myself again.

Valerie
Now, you’ve gotten to know the characters, Brock and Kolla, very well over the last however many years. Who would play them in a show?

Barry
I’m not sure about that. I have had two TV companies in the UK have taken options on the books, but so far they haven’t gone to production.

But, I’ve kind of avoided thinking about that in a way because I think I’d like to be surprised. In a way I would like to — the parts to be played by people we don’t associate as sort of established characters in film.

Valerie
Right.

Barry
So many of them are familiar to us now, aren’t they?

Valerie
Yes.

Barry
We look at them and we think of them as being other characters. I’d like to have somebody completely unknown, I think.

Valerie
You’ve published 12 books since 2000, that is extremely prolific.

Barry
No, well, the first one came out in ’94, I think.

Valerie
Oh, right, OK.

Barry
Yeah.

Valerie
But, still you’ve published many books since you’ve started writing.

Barry
Yeah.

Valerie
You say that you’ve done six months — you do six months of research. After that what’s the gestation period for a book?

Barry
Well, it takes me about 18 months to get a book out. The writing time probably — to get the first draft out probably takes about four or five months and then it’s new drafts, working through it.

Then, of course, there’s the editorial process at the end with a publisher.

Valerie
Yes.

Barry
Which is an important part of the process too.

Valerie
So, when you’re in those four or five months of your first draft, presumably you’re writing everyday?

Barry
Yes.

Valerie
Can you describe to us what your daily writing routine is?  Do you start off a particular way?  Do you have to have your cup of tea before you move on?  Do you have to go for a walk to clear your head? What do you do, actually?  Take us through your day.

Barry
Well, yes, I start by taking the dogs for a long walk. They need it. I’ve got a new Labrador puppy that’s absolutely kind of bursting at the seams with energy. We go for a walk along the river or something like that.

Have breakfast. Sit down in front of the computer, rearrange my notes, check the emails, and then read what I wrote the previous day. Just go through it again picking up the kind of pace and the getting into the characters again, remembering where I’m at the in story and the ideas I had for moving forward, and begin to write.

Depending, I mean I find that sometimes the writing flows more easily than others.

Valerie
Yes.

Barry
Sometimes it’s so frustrating I might only write 400 or 500 words in a day other times it might be 2,000 – 2,500.

Valerie
Wow. What kind of target do you set yourself?   Obviously, it’s not necessarily a word count. Do you say, “I should really sit her for ‘X’ number of hours.”?  What kind of structure do you have?

Barry
Yeah, that’s what Raymond Chandler used to say. He said even when he was in the worst kind of block he’d force himself to sit for four hours in front of his typewriter, even if he didn’t hit a key, just as a kind of self-discipline. I think I sort of do that.

I have to be here in my room and if I’m not writing I’m going back to the plot lines again and the characters and trying to think, “Now, I’ve gotten so far, does this really stack up?  Is this working? Maybe I’ve got this wrong.”

Quite often I discover some way down the track of writing, maybe two-thirds in that actually the ending that I had in mind really isn’t going to work or there’s a much more interesting direction that emerging. That means that the characters themselves have got some hidden things about them that I hadn’t suspected.

By the time I get to the end, I mean the end is often quite scary because I’ve got all of these sort of threads and things that all have to be resolved, many of which perhaps have changed their nature during the course of writing. Finally, when I’ve got there I have to go back to the beginning again and rewrite it all to get it all  straight —

Valerie
Right, so you can’t necessarily resolve all of those threads by writing an appropriate resolution at the end. Sometimes you have to change the whole story?

Barry
Yes, that’s right. I set off from the beginning thinking that I know where I’m going, but I very often have two or three different lines of inquiry going. Sometimes the one that I think is going to be the one that resolves it all, in fact is not. I don’t like red herrings in a story just for the sake of red herrings, but very often there are plot lines that don’t, in fact, lead to the conclusion, but they lead to some revelation, which is important for the conclusion, if I can put it like that.

Valerie
When you write crime and research crime you can very often come across very morbid and disturbing stuff.

Barry
Yeah.

Valerie
Have you become desensitized to that?  Or can that get you down at all?

Barry
I don’t have a great deal of graphic violence in my books. Sometimes it’s necessary to have gory scenes, you know?  Sometimes I think that — I mean you have those events because trauma and the dark corners are part of crime, of course.

Valerie
Yes.

Barry
But, I hope that in the end, when you get to the end of the book, that the books are uplifting rather than depressing.

Valerie
But in the course of your research you would come across quite some disturbing things?  Does that affect you at all?  Have you come quite used to it?

Barry
I think it does affect you, yes. I think when you get into reading about real crime it affects you and sometimes in unexpected ways. I mean I think one of the things about true crime, I’ve sat through a number of court cases and read a lot of accounts and so on, is very often the thing that’s so depressing about them is the motivation is so weak.

Valerie
Right.

Barry
You know, it’s so banal, something happened because somebody got drunk or there was some anger there that couldn’t be controlled or something and yet these awful consequences happened, whereas in fiction, and in my fiction, what I’m really interested in is motivation, it’s why something happened.

Valerie
Yes.

Barry
Somebody described my books as why-dunnit’s rather than who-dunnits.

Valerie
Right, yes.

Barry
Yeah, and it’s that motivation that I think is crucial.

Valerie
For those people who might be new to the Brock and Kolla series is there a particular book that you think that would be a good entré for them, should they start at the beginning, should they start with the latest, should they start somewhere in the middle?

Barry
Well, you know, it’s hard to say. Having just finished Chelsea Mansions I would say, “That’s brightest and best in my mind,” but I have a great affection for the first one, The Marx Sisters.

Valerie
Yes.

Barry
And a lot of readers do love that book, which they ought to start there. I don’t know, they do stand alone. You don’t need to have read any of the earlier ones to get the book, but I suppose knowing something of the back story of the characters helps.

Valerie
Chelsea Mansions is obviously out now, or about to be out now —

Barry
It’s just about to come out, yes.

Valerie
What are you working on now? Now that’s put to bed.

Barry
Yeah, I’m working on another one.

The last time I was in London I noticed there’s a canal that goes right through the center of London. I was walking past the canal with the canal boats on it. A young woman got out of one of these canal boats, all dressed ready to go to the operas.

I had a conversation with her, you know, she was working in a local office there, but living on a canal boat in this canal, right in the center of London, the most sort of very salubrious area. But she was living in a boat, in a canal, which connects through to the canal systems through Britain. She could move anywhere around the country taking her house with her. It just struck me as such an interesting life.

Valerie
Yes.

Barry
And so I began to do a bit of research in that. And that’s what I’m working on at the moment, about a group of people living in canal boats in the center of London.

Valerie
Fascinating. Will you set another one in Australia soon?

Barry
Yes, I have been working on an Australian story. I very much hope that I can get that out soon too.

Valerie
Finally, what’s your advice to people who are listening to this and they want to be where you were in the early ‘90s when you were thinking, “I’d really like to actually write a novel.” What’s your advice to those who are interested in writing their own novel, particularly a crime novel?

Barry
Well, the first thing is stop thinking about and get on and do it.

Valerie
Fantastic.

Barry
Yeah, I mean you really have to test yourself. At the same time keep reading. Look critically at books that you read and see how they do it.

But, in terms of crime I think the other thing there is pace of focus, something that I discovered in a way, particularly through working with my first editor, the way in which she pruned and made suggestions to tighten up the story. It made me realize how much, in crime writing, you can’t sort of wander off from the story line, everything counts, potentially.

So that sort of focus and pace is so important. If you can develop that and cultivate that I think that it is a very important thing to nurture.

Valerie
Wonderful. We’re very excited about Chelsea Mansions and looking forward to the next one as well, obviously — set on the canal boats.

Thank you very much for your time today, Barry.

Barry
It’s a great pleasure, Valerie.


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