I have Martin Hopkins, author of Cracks in the Pavement and Old Man in Window, here for my very first author interview. Woo!
So Martin, why don't you tell us a little about yourself.
Hello! Some days I have a beard, other days not so much...especially if I slip and take off a sideburn. I loved reading adventure books and watching films as a teenager, which I still do, but I didn't start writing them until my early twenties, a late bloomer!
Random question! What is your favourite type of biscuit?
Gold Bar, if I'm feeling flush, a plain digestive biscuit if I'm low-down broke.
Well, I can honestly say I've never even heard of Gold Bar - must be pretty classy!
What are you reading at the moment?
'Ripley's Game' by Patricia Highsmith. I loved 'The Talented Mr Ripley', the book is great and the film is even better (which is rare). He is a very complicated character. A mistake on the cover art of the book led me down the garden path to believe this was the follow-up to 'Talented'. Apparently it is the third in the series. Doh! 'Ripley Underground' could be the second one, although I don't trust the cover art on this one either...I'm confused!
I'm always quite afraid of that happening - it's so annoying when they don't make it clear! I assiduously check to make sure before I buy anything.
Where did the inspiration for Cracks in the Pavement come from?
The novel came from a sadness I felt, in regards to the class system still being predominant in modern day Britain. There is such a huge wealth gap in society and the worst part is it doesn't have to be this way. Why do we have to have one person sitting on a throne, eating cupcakes, at one end of the spectrum and another person sitting alone on a cold concrete path at the other? Or worse, naked in the dessert, starving, dying from AIDS at 4 years old...It makes no sense to me.
Most people want to climb higher in life; social status, money, power and all that 'important' stuff. Some people don't give a shit. It perpetuates the class hierarchy and keeps the economy going. Little guy in his place down there (stay where you are!), big lady, in more ways than one, striving to break through the next glass ceiling way up there (keep going you can make it...no matter how many others you have to step over). Simple man, enjoying ignorant bliss, floating somewhere in the middle.
Walking to work each day, hungover and down at heart, I would see a number of beggars and 'homeless' people on the streets. After seeing the same faces for years, it slowly dawned on me that they were in fact professional beggars, not losing weight and starving, but creating a living based on a lie and the sympathy of others. I would see families of beggars, meeting up at certain times, organising who would go to each preplanned spot and for how long, before switching places with a team of people. Some of them were even quite plump. Greedy beggar, no! You've had too many sausages...
This raised the other side of the coin, the issues of drug and alcohol addiction, as well as mental health problems and physical/emotional abuse. Some are genuine and in need of immediate help, others are something all together different. For want of a better word, a con. This fascinated me and I had to tell this story.
I built a narrative around this concept, a young man's contemporary story, growing up, his relationships, trying to find his way in the world whilst dealing with his own struggles with alcohol, insomnia and self-esteem issues.
Two of my favourite books are George Orwell's Down and Out in Paris and London and Dostoyevsky's Notes from the Underground. They both examined society and a character who abandons his life to live with an underground street community. I wanted to write a modern day version of that and make it as gritty as possible, hence all the sex, violence, drug abuse and other stuff.
Why does Dan feel this overwhelming need to help Emily? I mean, he turns his life upside down trying to track down her attacker even though she doesn't really seem all that bothered.
He loved her. He was also disturbed by her attack and her reaction to it. He needed to catch this guy, as he was intrigued by him, but also a retribution sort of thing.
Emily is a sociopath. She is exquisitely beautiful on the outside; incredible body art all over, ripped jeans with no underwear, black leather jacket holding an awesome physique, but she is dead emotionally. Her feelings aren't just numbed, they left her a long time ago.
Emily is only interested in what she can get for herself and she has no sense of one 'self'. She can be anyone she chooses to be and adapts and changes very quickly, depending on where she is and who she is with. Although she doesn't care about Dan, she needs his sympathy and pity for her game to work. That's how sociopaths operate, manipulating others in plain sight, hiding behind any number of masks.
Dan's path takes him down quite a bleak road into the darker side of Edinburgh, and it comes off feeling very authentic. How did you research the darker aspects to get to that point?
Edinburgh has a wonderfully dark history, if you think about Burke and Hare, Deacon Brodie, Robert Lois Stevenson writing Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde, to name but a few. Once upon a time there was another city, below street level. Now it is just a maze of tunnels and empty stone rooms. I love the stories where a character in the daytime is completely different to how he is in the night. Often they are complete opposites, two different people. I wanted to explore that.
Some days I would give money to the beggars I saw (knowing it wouldn't really help them long term) but it gave me an opportunity to talk with people, find out their situation, how they ended up freezing on the streets every day. A lot of them broke my heart. A few of the characters in 'Cracks in the Pavement' are based on people I have seen, met and spoken to.
Other days, I would dress up as my character, Dan - wear a beanie hat, long tattered overcoat, scarf, fingerless gloves and go out taking photographs from his perspective. Sometimes sitting on the ground a couple of times, pretending to be a beggar. I didn't make much!
A large part of the story is inside the mind of Dan. We see his psyche breaking down over the course of the story. I related parts of my own life to this, going to a job I couldn't stand, having to deal with a bully of a boss, who was really just a big kid. Living from low paycheque to low paycheque each month. On top of that, drinking too much and not sleeping properly and the problems that can lead to.
When you are stuck in a routine of misery and can't afford a holiday to escape from it, that can be a struggle. First world problems! I could pay rent (most of the time), buy cigarettes and have just enough food to live on, but not much else. I was earning less than £10,000 per year, in 2011. That's a fortune to a homeless person, but ridiculous if you want to have a somewhat comfortable life in today's society.
Everything is SO expensive! A beer in a pub has a 400% mark-up on what it costs in the supermarket, which in turn is much more than it actually costs to make. We are being ripped off at every turn, for the all important profit margin, which is really a road a thousand miles long, covered in ice and you have bare feet.
Thinking about my life and the lives of people living on the street, I wanted to go lower than that, to see what life was like underground, in the shadows. I feared I may die if I did, so instead I turned it into literature.
One of my heroes is Christopher McCandless and his true story that inspired the book and film 'Into the Wild'. He hated liars, materialistic excess and the poisoned society he saw all around him. So he disappeared. I respect and understand that a lot. Seeing the suffering but unable to help. The need for freedom and truth.
I'm intrigued about you pretending to be a beggar! How was it being on the other side of the
exchange? Any particularly good or bad experiences?
It changes how people look at you and treat you. In my everyday life, I find that most people are friendly and helpful, maybe because I look or act a certain way or because I'm polite and kind to everyone I meet. Unless they are arrogant or rude, then I give it to them!
One person will walk past you and give you a sad look. The next person walks by and they intentionally ignore you, even though it's obvious you are all they are thinking about in that moment. Some people stop and talk, try to find out why you are there and what happened in your life, the series of events that led to you on your bum in the street. The reaction they have when I say “I'm okay, just researching a book, now go away! You're blowing my cover...” is funny.
There is a great charity called StreetWork, who operate in Edinburgh, and they help beggars, homeless people and those with addiction and abuse problems on the fringes of society. The great thing is, they don't do good under the guise of religion, the 'help your fellow human or you will go to hell' redundant mantra. They do it because they have their own set of moral values, that doesn't have to be preached or sold or taught, it's inherent within them.
I didn't personally have any bad experiences. I have read about people being beaten up or urinated on by drunken idiots on a night out, pissed off at the world or someone and they take it out on a complete stranger, an easy target. I wish someone had tried it with me...'Come on, I want you to do it...I dare you, see what happens.' So, yeah, I incorporated that into the novel as well, the hyena-like pack of businessmen that pick on Dan when he is close to his lowest point.
On the flip side, you don't have to be sitting on the streets to be on the other side of someone's passive aggressive bullshit. I was standing outside a pub (a slightly cheaper one this time) with a few friends and this guy just shoulder barged me out the way... He could have easily walked around us or said 'excuse me', we weren't blocking the path. But no, he was big and important and he had to get somewhere quicker by walking through people. I just laughed and said 'Cheers, man' in a voice loud enough to annoy him. I love those little moments, when you can show a person they are not the most important thing since tea and biscuits. If you can get a Gold Bar in your tummy you'll feel better instantly.
Can you remember what your record take was?
I had a few coins but I didn't count them, just gave the cup to a young girl who was really in need. I also gave her a sandwich, a smile and an ear for a time. It's great when you can help someone, even just a bit, not for gratification, but for the light in that person's eyes and the flicker of hope that not everyone in this world is a greedy, self-involved bastard.
Aw, isn't that lovely!
Can you tell us what you're working on next? Or is that top-secret-hush-hush stuff?
I like all the top-secret hush-hush stuff...like do you know aliens only ever land in redneck towns like bumble-fuck Mississippi? They're idiots! Why not land in New York or London? They travelled all this way, eons and light years and galaxies, to land in some hillbilly's back yard...Bill Hicks is a hero of mine.
I'm spinning a few plates at the moment. First up is the screenplay for Cracks in the Pavement. I just finished writing it a few months ago and it is at the second stage of consideration with the British Film Institute, after they enjoyed the opening scenes. I have a meeting with a film production company, Blue Iris Films, lined up later this week. I'm hoping that goes well. They have an incredible film being made now called 'Boat' – Edinburgh underwater!
I wrote an adaptation of William Saroyan's The Time of Your Life and secured the exclusive U.K performance rights to the play. We are currently in the funding application stages, which is a slow process!
I'm writing the follow-up to 'Cracks...' about a young cat burglar in training. He decides to rob a bank vault, to get revenge for foreclosing on his father's family business. He almost gets away with it but is inevitably caught. He goes to trial, represents himself, and is eventually sent to prison on a technicality. From there, he plans his great escape! It's called The Crook of Things and will feature the recurring character of Detective Inspector Morrison, the crooked cop from the first story. Think Shawshank Redemption meets Papillion.
The third and final installment in the series is called Sophistry, the origin story of The Professor, his time at Oxford University and what made him lose his marbles all over the world.
And I'm now rather looking forward to The Crook of Things! Certainly sounds intriguing.
That's great, thank you very much for your time Martin!
Martin's books are available on Amazon and Goodreads. You can find out more at his
eBook trailer for the controversial debut novel 'Cracks in the Pavement' by Martin Hopkins