I met Keith via my No Wasted Ink facebook page and am delighted to include him here on the blog. Welcome Keith to the readers of No Wasted Ink.
Hi, I’m Keith Dixon. I’ve had a varied career as a proofreader, copywriter, professor of English and business psychologist. I have a house in Cheshire in the UK but I’m currently spending a lot of time at my partner’s place in France. I hope eventually to sell up and live with her on a permanent basis!
When and why did you begin writing?
My first memory of taking writing seriously was as a teen, making up stories and scripting episodes of The Avengers, with John Steed and Emma Peel, on British TV. I never got as far as sending in these scripts, which is probably just as well. In my late teens I bought an old manual typewriter and started writing short stories and, eventually, novels. I think many writers have a didactic streak which comes to the fore in one’s teenage years – you think you see the world much more clearly than the ‘old folk’ around you, and want to set them straight. So you start making up stories that somehow embody the immortal life lessons you’ve learned at age sixteen …
When did you first consider yourself a writer?
I wrote 7 novels between the ages of 20-22, but of course none of them was any good. But in my late twenties I won a playwriting competition which led to the play – about Isaac Newton – receiving ‘rehearsed readings’ at two major theatres in Manchester and Chester. That was when I started to think I knew how to put words together. Unfortunately it was then a long time before I had the freedom to write books again.
Can you share a little about your current book with us?
The Private Lie is the second in my series of ‘Sam Dyke Investigations’. Sam is a tough private eye based in the North West of England who gets caught up in the malevolent activities of two thuggish twins. Sam is trying to help his son, whom he hadn’t met before the beginning of the book. The son turns up after eighteen years and demands that Sam must help him. So Sam agrees to find his son’s missing girlfriend but before he knows it is engaged in a battle with two gangland twins. Mayhem ensues.
What inspired you to write this book?
Two things: I’d read about two men in Manchester who ran a building/construction company, but were in fact gangsters smuggling dope and so forth. The construction business was more or less a cover. Secondly, I’d seen a guy in a coffee shop in a mall. He had on a tight black tee-shirt and bulging muscles, with a shaved head showing just a little hair. And he was with a delicate woman who I took to be his wife. I wondered why someone got themselves muscled up like that, and what it was like for them to be out on a shopping expedition in a mall. This became the basis for my two steroidal twins.
Do you have a specific writing style?
The genre I write in is the hard-boiled, noir private eye school, and there is a kind of style associated with that – wisecracks, first-person narration, dames and bad guys. From Chandler and Hammett through Ross Macdonald’s Lew Archer and on to Robert Crais’ Elvis Cole, there is a kind of ‘perspective’ that the private eye must take in order to justify what he does (and though there are of course exceptions, it is usually a he). So the style focuses on actions at the expense of reflection and uncovers individual motivations as the book progresses. There are helpers, comic characters, danger and moments of drama. The writer’s job is to harmonise all these elements into a ‘voice’ that makes sense as a person speaking to you, and also has some kind of moral vision or understanding of what’s going on. I’m becoming more interested in that aspect as I write more. Another wrinkle is that of course these books are usually written by Americans, with all the vivid language that entails – a challenge for me was to transfer that into the UK.
How did you come up with the title of this book?
The Private Lie is obviously a pun on Private Eye, but I also built in several references to the ways in which people lie to themselves or sometimes keep the truth from others – so it’s not an outright lie but perhaps a sin of omission instead.
Is there a message in your novel that you want readers to grasp?
I don’t actually believe in an abstract ‘evil’ as I know some people – and some writers – do. My experience as a psychologist tells me that people act on motives and drives that they’re not always aware of – they justify their actions to themselves or do things – even bad things – as a way of coping with the world they find themselves in. So I hope that some of the bad guys in the book are shown to have some redeeming features or vulnerabilities that they can’t help, any more than they can help the behaviours that we would call wicked or malicious.
Are experiences in this book based on someone you know, or events in your own life?
I think it’s true that practically everything in this book is made up! In my first novel, Altered Life, I did use my background in business psychology and consultancy to create an environment for the story. Here, it’s research and knowing the physical places in which the events happen, and that’s all.
What authors have most influenced your life? What about them do you find inspiring?
An endless list. Mostly American writers – Fitzgerald, Dos Passos, Salinger, Steinbeck, Heller. More recently, James Lee Burke. As a writer, what I find inspirational is their ability to capture lived experience in sentences. Trying to write well AND write within the constraints of a genre is an interesting task and one that needs constant study. That’s one reason I started my blog, Crime Writing Confidential – subtitled ‘What crime writers do, and how they’ve done it.’
If you had to choose, is there a writer would you consider a mentor? Why?
At the moment, it’s James Lee Burke. Every sentence is heavy with meaning. He writes dialogue that jumps off the page and grabs you around the neck. His descriptive passages add depth and resonance to his characters’ actions. And he has a moral purpose behind his books. Plus, he’s probably the greatest writer of action sequences currently writing. The last 100 pages of his new book, Creole Belle, is one extended action sequence of the sort you might find in a Bruce Willis film. Only better.
Who designed the cover of your book? Why did you select this illustrator?
I’ve used photographs that I’ve taken myself for my books because they have some relevance – for me, if not for the reader!
Do you have any advice for other writers?
The usual advice is to read and read and read. But it’s more than that. It’s read, then think. Read, then think. Look back at a page or a paragraph and analyze how it achieved its effects. How did he get from that section or thought to this one? How does the writer structure scenes? Where’s the conflict? So it’s a mixture of reading, thinking, analyzing and then trying it out.
Do you have anything specific that you want to say to your readers?
To those who have already read the books, thank you and I hope it wasn’t too painful! To those who haven’t, please take a chance.
A writer of crime novels that are bitterly comic but deadly serious, with a hero who doesn’t know how to give up.
The Private Lie, published by Semiologic Ltd, photo by Keith Dixon.