Could you tell us about your childhood , and about how you came to writing crime litterature ?
The only thing I miss about my youth is my hair, but if that’s the price I had to pay for walking away, I got a good deal. Let’s leave it there.
I wrote my first book when I was about 12. I’d seen a terrible tv movie of Dashiell Hammett’s The Dain Curse with James Coburn. But I liked the story and Coburn was the epitome of cool. I bought the book next day, started reading it. And then – for whatever reason – I started writing a book which (inadvertently) fused police procedural with a vampire story. I was way ahead of my time.
I then spent my twenties trying to to become a literary writer. I thought that was ‘serious’ fiction, you see. Genre fiction – crime, sci-fi, horror etc – wasn’t, to me, ‘real writing’, or even ‘good writing’. I was young. And a terrible intellectual snob. Therefore ignorant.
But I had a major problem with contemporary literary English fiction. Still do. Most of it was then – and is now – about exactly nothing; writing that admires its arse on the way out the door. It was the equivalent of those rubbish bloated supergroups in the mid-70s – you know, Yes and Emerson Lake and Palmer, who were utter shit. Well crafted shit, but shit nonetheless. In fact, a lot of literary writers look like Rick Wakeman.
In early 1993, a work colleague hipped me to James Ellroy’s Black Dahlia. Amazing book. So too The Big Nowhere, American Tabloid, LA Confidential and My Dark Places. Ellroy was the single biggest reason I became a crime writer. Not to imitate or even emulate, but because of the approach – highly literary and literate, but placing the story and characters first. And what writing that was! Stunning turns of phrase. It was poetry from hell. Burn baby burn.
So, I decided to be a crime writer. Only I didn’t know what to write about. I’d been an amateur boxer in my teens, which meant I was pretty much surrounded by criminals of one stripe or another. Not the boxers themselves, or the trainers, but the East London gym I trained in was a magnet for nefarious types. Of course I didn’t really want to write about that. Or England at the time, which was a pretty dull, tired place. Especially London.
Then I went to Haiti in 1996 … and things fell into place. Slowly.
You write about Haïti in both your novels translated to French. Are your mother’s haïtian roots important for your novels ?
Obviously, yes. In fact, I’d say my mother has been the single biggest influence in my life – positively and negatively.
Although I consider myself British, I was raised Haitian. My mother was a single-parent.. We spoke French and Kreyol (the patois) at home, and English outside. In fact, whenever we wanted to say nasty things about someone who was in the same room as us we’d say it in Kreyol. You can really destroy people in Kreyol. Brilliant language!
I love the main character of both your novels, Max Mingus. Could you say a few things about him for those of our readers who have not read your novels ?
Sure. Max Mingus is an ex-cop, ex-private detective, ex-convict. He is at different stage of his life in each of the three books – in King of Swords, he’s a 30 year old Miami cop who crossed the line a long time ago; in Mr Clarinet, he’s a forty something widower just released from prison; and in the third and final book, 90 Miles, he’s a bitter, lonely fifty eight year old man living in his own dark shadow. You might want to go out for a drink with him, but you wouldn’t get drunk with him.
Did you go to Haïti to do researches for you novel “ Mr Clarinet ” ? The descriptions of the locations are strikingly detailed.
I have family in Haiti, obviously. I’ve spent a lot of time in Haiti. 1967-70, 1973-74, 1996-1997. I also visited the country every couple of years between 1976 and 1982.
The Haiti of Mr Clarinet is the country I saw with my own eyes the last time I was there.
Voodoo is very important in both novels, how did you get the idea of writing about it ?
It’s not voodoo I write about, in the traditional sense of a benign religion (unless you’re a chicken). The ‘voodoo’ I write about is a perversion of it – black magic, in other words.
In “ Mr Clarinet ” you mention that some UN soldiers raped some young girls . You also mention that when the Pope came to Haïti in 1983 Michelle Duvalier ordered that Chanel perfume be poured on the pavement. Is all that true ?
All true. A contingent of Bangladeshi troops were sent to Haiti as part of the UN’s ‘peacekeeping force’ in the 1990s. They went around gang raping girls as young as 10. The Haitian ambassador told Koffi Annan about it and Koffi Annan did exactly nothing about it. The same contingent of troops was then sent to Liberia to keep the peace there, and they went and did exactly the same thing to young girls in that country. Again, Koffi Annan did nothing. Koffi Annan is a scumbag.
Michelle Duvalier is equally horrendous. She made Marie Antoinette look like Jeanne D’Arc.
I’d have locked her and her whole fucking family away for life for the things they did. Thieving, murdering, drug dealing scum. Her father – Earnest Bennett was such a greedy scumbag, he wasn’t only content to be the biggest drug dealer in the Caribbean, but he used to sell the bodies of dead Haitians to US hospitals for research. Her brother got caught dealing cocaine to undercover FBI agents, and as for her … well, you can pretty much track the country’s decline to the day she became Mrs Duvalier. She was a coke snorting nympho who fucked half of the army’s officers. Jean Claude Duvalier was an obese, bisexual half-wit, also coked out of his gourd most of the time.
I was struck by your description of Cité Soleil. Could you tell us about that place ?
It’s a slum outside Port-au-Prince. A square mile of cardboard houses and ground that is literally made of shit – human and animal. I visited it with the Red Cross in 1996.
I ‘ve noticed that many British writers set the action of their novels in the US, why is that ? Couldn’t Mingus have been English ?
Do they? I wouldn’t know. I don’t know any British writers. So you’ll have to ask them. Sorry.
I was surprised by the fact that in “ Voodoo Land ” you go back in Max Mingus’s past, what gave you the idea ?
I didn’t want to write a straight sequel to Mr Clarinet. Too predictable. So I wrote about Max in Miami in the 1980s. Back then the city was the Wild West of the cocaine generation.
Tell us about Solomon Boukman : a real terror !
Solomon Boukman is based on Francois Duvalier – aka Papa Doc – Haiti’s infamous, mass-murdering, black magic practicing dictator. He really was a terror.
Will there be a third novel about Max Mingus ? What are your litterary plans ? The concierge is curious ! !
There is a third and FINAL Max Mingus book. It came out in England this year.
I’m very proud of the book. It’s set in Cuba in 2008. It’s a sequel to both Mr Clarinet and King of Swords, and takes Max Mingus’ story to its absolute conclusion.
How did you feel when you won the 2009 SNCF European Crime Novel Price ?
That was a great honour. Amazing really. It was also voted by the public, which was astonishing, because I didn’t know Mr Clarinet had even been noticed when it was published.
Max Mingus loves Miles Davis’s jazz and Bruce Springsteen, what about you, which singers do you like ?
Max Mingus hates Bruce Springsteen! Go read the books again, mate.
I play something by Miles Davis every day. I’m currently listening to his 80s stuff, which is hugely underrated. There’s a great book about Miles’ final decade by George Cole called The Last Miles. I recommend it to anyone who’s interested in Miles’s music – especially people who think his last decent album was Kind of Blue or Sketches of Spain. He was an innovator to the end. The album he was working on before he died was a fusion of jazz and rap.
I won’t bother listing all my favourite music, because there’s a lot of it. The genres I listen to the most are 70s/early 80s reggae, disco, Krautrock, punk – and jazz, obviously.
What are your writing habits ? Do you write in the morning, the evening , at a desk … ?
I get up early. Around 5.00 AM. Drink five really thick expressos, down a bunch of vitamins, turn on the computer, check my emails and read the newspapers online.
Then I start writing. I don’t have a word quota, but I’m writing a lot faster these days.
I’ve written at the same desk for the past nine years. It was falling apart when I first sat down at it in 1999, and every year a little more of it breaks off. I hope it manages to support my current book. After it’s done, I may have to replace it.
Who are your favourite writers, and why ?
That’s a really long and tedious list – like favourite music or films. So instead of listing them all, I’ll tell you the following:
Richard Price’s Clockers was the greatest crime novel of the 90s, and Don Winslow’s The Power of the Dog is, to date, the greatest crime novel of the 21st Century.
Do you have a funny anecdote about one of your novels ?
I started smoking again in the middle of writing King of Swords (Voodoo Land). I’d quit for four years, but then I went to Miami for research and started again. I thought I could just have one and walk away, but, of course one led to two packs a day again. Ridiculous. It solved nothing and actually made things worse, because I not only had a deadline to worry about but a mounting addiction. Plus my wife – a non-smoker – was furious.
I decided to stop smoking for good when I finished King of Swords. Appropriately enough, I finished it in Miami, on the beach, exactly where the book ends, at exactly the same time of day too. I buried the Marlboro packet and my lighter in the sand and took a picture of it. I haven’t touched one since.
Do you think that one of your novels could be turned into a movie ? Would you like that ?
I’d love that. King of Swords has been optioned by Martin Campbell, who directed Casino Royale, GoldenEye and Edge of Darkness.
I think the Mingus trilogy would make great films, in the Bourne vein. The same actor playing Max Mingus in various decades, but I’d like each film to have a different director and writer. This would mirror the books, all three of which are different, one from the other.
A final word for your french readers ?
Thanks for your support and your interest in my work. It’s an honour to have you as readers. Sincerely. May the sun be on your faces, the wind at your backs and the road rise with you – always.