Today I’m interviewing Joel Hames, who writes gritty thrillers and crime novels.
I met up with Joel in London in early March – just before everything changed and the world started going into lockdown. He was one of the last people I saw before retreating into my writer’s room!
Tell us something about your books.
I’ve got eight books out at the moment, with three more ready to fire, but I’m best known for the Sam Williams series – crime fiction with a smattering of legal.
Sam’s an almost-failed, nearly-successful human rights lawyer with a knack for getting under people’s skin, and an unfortunate tendency to pick up clients who put him in dangerous positions. The books are written in the first person, and feature a number of recurring characters other than Sam – both friends and enemies, former enemies turned friends, and (on particularly bad days) the reverse, as well as his long-term girlfriend Claire, a journalist with more than enough problems for her own series of books.
As for themes, the main trilogy, which was published over the course of 2018, is fairly diverse in what it covers, ranging from organised crime through poetry via historic sex crimes, the iniquities of a social and judicial system that for decades forced homosexuals to hide their true selves, people trafficking, obsession, fraud, South American smugglers, money, sickness and grief.
Like every good crime story, my books have twists, and most of my twists focus on unknowability: the fact that people will always surprise you, for better or for worse, however well you think you know them and however predictable they might have been in the past. The biggest twists happen right under your nose and you don’t even notice them until it’s too late, and this can be bad, of course, it can mean affairs and murders and all manner of nastiness, because I am writing crime fiction after all, but it can be good, too, which is why I always try to include something positive.
Later this year I’ve a psychological thriller coming out, provisionally titled The Lies I Tell. The blurb runs something like this:
High-tech identity thief Lisa finds herself framed for murder. With the police closing in, Lisa goes on the run with her young son. To find out who’s after her before it’s too late, she will have to unlock memories of her tragic past, her alcoholic, neglectful parents, the sister who drowned at the age of three – and the man she almost gave her heart to.
She will have to learn to trust other people with not just her life but her son’s.
And she will have to decide whether she is a fully-formed person, with a fully-formed personality, or just a series of characters to glide between when it suits her.
Playing with social media, block chain and psychology, WRONG ME is a tense and claustrophobic exploration of the way our personalities evolve in the modern era, and a nail-biting rollercoaster of a thriller at the same time.
I’m really excited about this one and I hope everyone else will be too.
What inspires you to write? Who are your favorite writers?
An idea – something that comes to me from a news report or a joke or an unfairness or an opportunity – all of those things have had me putting pen to paper at one time or another. But most of all, brilliant writing.
Lately I’ve been hooked by Mick Herron’s Slow Horses series: grown-up writing that’s serious and playful at the same time, and must have been so much fun to do. And two books in crime fiction that blew me away at the back end of 2019 were Will Carver’s Nothing Important Happened Today, which was almost experimental in style but still accessible and brilliantly told, and Rosamund Lupton’s Three Hours, which dealt with a school siege in the most unlikely and compelling way possible and will stick with me as a moral fable for the modern age.
How do you start writing? Do you have a process or do you fly by the seat of your pants?
I’m far too structured for my own good. I’ll jot down a series of ideas on my phone and in notebooks, then consolidate them into a OneNote file on my laptop, and then turn those ideas into a highly detailed plot summary – up to 25 pages long – which forms the basis for writing the book itself.
This means I take ages to get started, but once I do, there’s no pausing to work out what’s going to happen next.
How has your writing process changed since you started writing?
Very little! I seem to have it structured this way, and when I try to change it (by, for example, less planning) it doesn’t go well for me!
How long does it normally take you to write, and what proportion of the time is spent doing what?
Usually 6-8 weeks planning, 2-3 months writing, and 1-3 months editing, depending on just how bad that first draft is. The good news is that the more books I write, the less editing seems to be necessary.
What is your favorite part of the writing process?
The actual writing – as long as I have a vague idea what I’m writing about then most of the time, the words just flow and I thoroughly enjoy getting them down on paper.
Sure, there are problem areas, blocks of time or lumps of plot I have to just force myself through, first time round, but the vast majority of the writing is sheer fun.
Do you involve other people in your writing, as collaborators or editors? How do you make this work?
I tend to discuss ideas in advance with my wife, and my good writing friend John Bowen, but after that it’s down to me until I’ve finished my second or third draft.
After that, there will always be some external editing, advice and beta reading, by friends and family, professional editors and agents, and other writers with a knack for the big picture. Sometimes this costs money, but often it’s a vaguer form of exchange.
The writing community is unbelievably friendly, on the whole; there’s always something I can do to help out someone else, at some point or other, and we don’t so much store up favours as know that we will always be available for each other.
Do you have any writing tips you’d like to share with readers?
Writing shouldn’t be a solitary experience. Share your ideas, your WIP, your vague thoughts for killer twists, share with friends, family, other writers, anyone you can. I guarantee the feedback you get will improve your work.
Anything else I haven’t asked you about?
You haven’t asked me about my hobbies, but that’s fair enough, because they’re no more interesting than anyone else’s hobbies.
Thanks for telling us about your process, Joel. I’ve read a beta copy of The Lies I Tell and I’m looking forward to seeing it published, it’s very good.
You can find out more about Joel’s work on his website.