Stav Sherez is a freelance journalist and music critic. The Devil’s Playground, his 2004 debut novel, was described by the Observer as ‘ambitious, audacious and powerful’. His most recent novel is A Dark Redemption.
Are you a bookgeek?
Definitely. Books and records are my life. I love the look and feel of books, paperbacks especially, and I’ve been known to spend years trying to find a particular edition – not because it’s the best but because the cover remains indelibly welded to my original reading of it. My house is haemorrhaging books; books on the sofa, books piled up in the corners, books in the wardrobe and books on the floor. I can’t leave the house with at least two or three books in my backpack, I get nervous and scared without books
What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever been given (and do you follow it)?
The only piece of writing advice that is both useful and universally applicable is read all the time. Read everything and read closely.
Which authors do you find most inspiring as a writer?
There’s so many! William Burroughs for his uncompromising life and the flash-heat poetry of his fiction. Cormac McCarthy and Don DeLillo for their perfect sentences. William Vollmann for being one of the few writers to tackle impossible dreams. Steve Erickson and Philip K Dick for making my head spin and never completely setting it right. James Ellroy for the energy, the incredible rhythm, the use of history as backdrop. And, of course, Thomas Pynchon for writing books that no one else could, that manage to illuminate our culture in ways I can’t even begin to describe.
Do you have an audience in mind when writing, or do you just write for yourself?
I write because I need to write and because I couldn’t imagine doing anything else. But I write my books for the readers. I want them to stay up way past their bedtime because they want to know what happens next. I want them to dream of the book and miss their Tube stop because they couldn’t stop reading. And I want to do this because that’s what books have meant to me, the way they can pluck you out of your life and set you down somewhere entirely different, the spinning worlds contained between the covers.
Where do you write, and why?
I used to write only in coffeeshops but since the smoking ban that’s no longer practical. I have a desk facing a blank wall, away from the sun and other distractions, some Snoopys looking over me, and a tumble of books, papers and CDs scattered everywhere.
Tell us the book you most wish you had written.
Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy. Without a doubt. The grace and beauty and thunderclap poetry of the sentences blows me away every time. For me, these are the best sentences of the 20th Century. The kind of sentences Shakespeare or Milton or Melville would have written if they’d lived in our times. It’s a great adventure novel too, thrilling, dark, and compelling, and an amazing piece of landscape / nature writing. It’s also a profound meditation on humanity’s lust for violence, the ancient bloodstorm that runs through all our veins. And if that isn’t enough, it says some interesting things about God and fate and free will too.
The difficult partnership, the underbelly of London: much of A Dark Redemption involves new and exciting twists on the familiar. Did the book’s originality come naturally, or was there a conscious effort on your part to create something new?
Well, thank you for saying that. I think it was a mixture of both. There’s so many great detectives out there in the printed world that you don’t want to tread on too many footsteps. So even though I like listening to Jazz and Country music I knew I couldn’t subject the reading public to another detective with similar tastes. But otherwise it came naturally. The story demanded that Carrigan be a certain type of character, a type I’d been writing about in my previous two books and to a lesser extent the same goes for Geneva Miller. I also thought it would be far more interesting in terms of the team’s dynamics that Carrigan be regarded as somewhat of an outsider, a middle-class university educated policeman that the rank and file aren’t sure of and the bosses don’t trust.
There are a lot of violent references in A Dark Redemption, but they’re tied into a political reality, rather than just being for shock value. Were you ever attempting to write an “agenda” book, or was it purely about storytelling?
It’s always purely about storytelling. That’s where it has to begin. The story I wanted to tell was about three friends who go on holiday to Africa after university and from which only two come back. I spent six months reading about African history and trying to decide where to set the narrative, but the more I read about Joseph Kony’s LRA and the situation in Uganda, the more I knew I would have to write about it. Kony is an incredible gift for a novelist, especially one interested in death cults and religious mania. The more I learnt about the children involved in this war the more heartbreaking and awful it got and I couldn’t imagine their lives or how they could ever be put together and that was one of the things I wanted to explore in A Dark Redemption.
You worked as a music journo for a long time. Why do you think music still considered far cooler than literature?
It’s immediate. That’s a big thing. Ten seconds into a song and your heart is soaring. Also there’s something about chords and melody and dissonance that speaks to us on a sub-verbal level and which touches something deep inside. And it’s a young person’s game. Rock stars look cooler than writers and have crazier lives. We writers sit in our pyjamas and stare at screens all day, it’s not the most glamorous life and, sadly, the days of the Beat Generation are well behind us.
We expect you’ve been asked this a lot lately, but was the Kony 2012 viral helpful? As well as raising awareness, it’s attracted a lot of suspicion.
It’s a double-edged sword as you so rightly point out. I spent three years researching and writing about Kony and coming up against blank looks and bemused expression whenever I mentioned the Lord’s Resistance Army and then, overnight, Kony becomes the name on everyone’s lips. But I don’t think it helped sell any copies and obviously the book has nothing to do with Invisible Children. And when something this big happens you worry that the public will start suffering Kony-fatigue.
Are ex-African military elements living in London the proverbial chickens of colonialism coming home to roost? Does Britain have an obligation to the citizens of its former colonies?
In the 1950s and 1960s London was a home to many African thinkers and politicians, the very people who soon became the first post-colonial leaders in their respective countries. It was a safe place to plot and dream. But these days the situation is different. A lot of ex-military are hiding out because of atrocities they committed against their own people, or failed coups, or massive embezzlement. As to your second question, yes, I think we do have a certain obligation but I’m not sure what that exactly entails or where it begins or ends.
Additional questions by Mike Stafford