10 Questions with Denis Kilcommons
ANGEL is the second part of the trilogy that started with REAPER, which is re-launched on the same date. It’s a British near future thriller about the aftermath of a SARS virus pandemic that kills most of the world’s population. Society falls apart and gangs rule cities and urban centres. Jim Reaper is a former policeman who rescues 18-year-old Sandra from a trio of rapists. They head into the country to start afresh and on the way gather others looking for a new beginning.
The first book, REAPER, sees them establish the growing hamlet of Haven where they go back to an agrarian existence, although the threat from wandering bands of marauders is ever present. Reaper brings back law and shows no mercy to those who transgress. He becomes judge, jury and executioner. Sandra, with whom he has a father-daughter relationship, also learns the killing arts.
Surviving members of the military have been urged by Morse code message to gather at Windsor where, it is said, Prince Harry is forming a new government. But Reaper is suspicious whether this is true or a ploy by an opportunist to raise an army.
The first book catalogues triumphs and tragedies and bloody encounters as the group establish their new home.
By the second book, ANGEL, Reaper has become known as The Reaper and Sandra, his ever present sidekick, the Angel of Death.
Haven continues to grow but the community hears disturbing rumours about what is happening down south at the new capital called Redemption. If Prince Harry is really alive, is he being used as a figurehead against his will?
Before Reaper and Sandra can investigate they have other troubles: from Brother Abraham who has founded an extremist religious colony in York, and a travelling army approaching along the coast. Sandra is a deadly killing machine in her own right and proves her courage and tenacity in a climactic confrontation against overwhelming odds amid the historic backdrop of York.
2. How is your thriller different from numerous post-apocalyptic books flooding this genre?
The SARS pandemic is based on fact. Scientists have been warning for some time that the real threat to the world is not from al Qaeda or terrorism, but from mismanaged science, particularly in China. It is only a matter of time before a pandemic happens because of a virus aberration for which there is no cure.
But you’re right, there are many post-apocalyptic thrillers. It’s a rich area for the imagination. I’ve been reading them for years, since Day of the Triffids and A Canticle for Leibowitz. It’s a genre as wide open as westerns or espionage, so there is always room for more.
There have been some very good ones and some not so good. I wanted the REAPER trilogy to be hard, fast and pull no punches. Rape and murder would happen on a large scale; they happen in the books, although sexual matters are not dealt within a salacious manner. And the retribution meted out by Reaper and Sandra is death. What else would you do with a rapist or murderer? If you let them go, they would do it again somewhere else
I have tried to make the main characters complex, rather than cliché. Any good book depends on the characters; a reader wants someone with whom to identify, they have to care what happens to them if they are to continue reading the book. I have deliberately given the books pace and action, but the underlying themes are compassion, humanity and loyalty. There is plenty of research in there but the last thing I want to read is a slab of technology just to prove I’ve looked it up on Google.
3. Where did the inspiration for this story come from?
The idea came from the partial breakdown of today’s urban society. I read too many headlines and news stories about gangs of feral youths bullying neighbourhoods while the police stood by unable to do anything unless they had evidence to make arrests. What elderly citizen is actually going to put their name to a complaint when they know they can get a brick through the window or petrol poured through the letterbox? People who have been brave enough to confront hooligans have been beaten and sometimes killed. It seemed as if an underclass of society thought they could get away with anything as long as they instilled fear into a community. It was also annoying when thugs with track records of violence and no moral code were given soft sentences or probation by judges.
If society really broke down – as in the aftermath of a world disaster – these thugs would take advantage without fear or stricture. They would rule with boot and fist and knife and gun and take whatever they wanted. So wouldn’t it be great if they came up against one man who said: Enough is enough. It stops here. And in a survival situation, there is no room for prisoners. Which is how Jim Reaper came about: a policeman with a conscience; a man of principle and honour who is not afraid to impose order and dispense justice and punishment.
4. Some of your works are published traditionally and some are self-published. How do you find this experience? What do you like the most about each of these two different paths?
A bit of background: in 1971 I gave up work as a journalist to be a writer. Which was stupid as I had a wife and a nine month old child. I had short stories published, but not enough to live on, and wrote my first book, which was crap. After a year, I went back to journalism which is not a profession that is helpful to being a writer, considering I used words all day and spent a lot of time in the pub. Journalists were great drinkers in my day.
I kept writing and produced a comedy about race relations and sent it to an agent in London. I received a very nice letter back that diplomatically said it wasn’t very good. I kept trying in periodic bursts of literary fervour and produced a 100,000 word manuscript of a thriller. I sent this to the same agent who signed me up on the strength of it. Her words were: Go away and write another. So I did.
That first book was rejected by every publisher it was sent to. But the second book, The Dark Apostle, was bought at the first attempt by Bantam. I have had more than 20 books published under my own and different names by major publishing houses. They have been translated into eight languages including French, Spanish and Japanese and sold around the world. Two had movie options taken but the movies were never made. I started in the 1980s before e-books had been thought of and before home computers and wrote my first two on a typewriter: I would handwrite the first draft of a chapter, type it, correct it and re-type it. When it was finished, I would re-write the draft, maybe three times.
My first book won an award from the British Crimewriters’ Association and I thought I had made it. I hadn’t. Back then, more books were being published and new writers got half a chance. Today, those odds have changed. Publishers take no chances and prefer to opt for bankable commodities because ebooks have totally changed the marketplace. They aren’t selling as many books anymore.
I preferred writing for a publisher who would produce and promote the book. After all, a 100,000 word thriller represents a year’s work. The old process meant it had to be good enough to get you an agent, who was the first filter in the process. Then it had to be good enough for a publisher to see that not only was it good, but that it had the potential to make money. Publishing is, after all, a business.
The books that I have self-published are ones that my agent accepted but that publishers, in the changing world of computers and Kindle, didn’t. I had some great rejection letters for them but, for these books, no offer. That’s why they are on Kindle. The difficulty with self-publishing on Kindle is how to promote your work. Thousands of aspiring novelists now have books available that vary widely in quality. Some are terrific, others aren’t. But how does someone who is browsing the Kindle shelves tell the difference? To be honest, I haven’t bothered attempting to promote my work with Twitter or Facebook or social networking campaigns. I’m too busy. I’m still a working journalist (I write three newspaper columns a week) and I only occasionally have time to maintain the blog on my website.
For me, traditional publishing is undoubtedly best because you have the acknowledgement of your peer professionals that your work is worth it, and they do the marketing. All you have to do is turn up for a book signing or do a radio interview.
But self-publishing is a great way of putting your work in “a” market place, even if you only get readers by chance. I mean, if a book takes a year to write, it deserves to be available somewhere. As anyone who writes knows, it is hard work. The downside of self-publishing is that it is a lonely business with no support. I have to add that I have had a few responses from readers who found my ebooks by chance that makes that makes the process well worthwhile.
5. How have you seen your writing change since your first crime novel, THE DARK APOSTLE, came out in 1988?
I don’t think my writing has changed. My style is, to an extent, journalistic. I don’t like unnecessary adjectives. The writers I admire include Hemingway and Elmore Leonard. The ones I steer away from are those who are long winded for the sake of it.
6. Are you planning to re-launch your old works on your own on Amazon and other retailers? Has self-publishing given a boost to your sales and your writing career?
I would re-launch my old work as ebooks if I had them on disc. Unfortunately, the early ones were typescripts and I lost the floppies that some of the later ones were written on. I would have to key them in again. Sadly, the ebooks haven’t particularly boosted my other work. Yet.
7. What is the single most important thing you have learned during the writing process of crafting a novel?
Routine. Set yourself a daily target. Write something each day. Keep writing even if you hit a brick wall or the plot has taken a wrong turn. Sit down in front of the keyboard and start: something will come. It might be rubbish but it will start the juices flowing, the imagination working and you will get something: a new idea, a way out of the dead end, or the decision to cut the last two chapters because they don’t work.
8. A word of advice for new writers?
Be persistent and true to yourself. It’s the hardest and loneliest job in the world. But it can also be tremendously rewarding.
9. What are your favorite pastimes?
Reading, watching sport and going to the pub. I also walk every morning, ostensibly for health reasons, but a tramp through the woods is a great way to clear the mind or pick over ideas.
10. What is your next book going to be about?
My next book is PILGRIM. I have 85,000 words written of the first draft so it’s close to the finishing line. It’s a variation of a time travel theme that is set, occasionally, in the present day.