Tuesday, April 12, 2011

David Hewson and Rome's Fallen Angel

DEB: Today I'm especially pleased to be talking to one of my favorite writers, David Hewson, about his new Nic Costa novel, The Fallen Angel.

I first met David a few years ago when we were both on the guest faculty for the Book Passage Mystery Writers Conference, and I've been a huge fan ever since. David's books, set in present day Rome, are intelligent, articulate, evocative, and compelling. David is also an extremely nice guy, a talented photographer, and a foodie. No matter how disturbing the case, David's characters never lose sight of the really important things in life, and his descriptions of Roman food are enough to make you book your plane ticket. (David also--at least according to the photos on his blog--has the neatest desk of any writer I've ever seen. This is obviously a subject for future discussion...)

In The Fallen Angel, when British academic Malise Gabriel falls to his death from a Rome apartment, detective Nic Costa rapidly comes to realize that there is much more to the accident than he first thought. It also becomes apparent that Malise’s family — mysterious and tragic daughter Mina, stoic wife Cecilia and troubled son Robert — may be keeping vital information hidden.

Costa becomes obsessed with the case, intrigued by Mina’s story which seems to be linked to the sixteenth-century real-life tragedy of a young Italian noblewoman, Beatrice Cenci.

As the investigation deepens, Rome’s dark and seedy side is uncovered, revealing a tangle of deceit, treachery and corruption. Costa realizes that the key to the truth lies with the Gabriels. Why are they so unwilling to co-operate, and who, or what, is the reason for their silence?

Tess Gerritsen says, "Intricately plotted and gorgeously written, THE FALLEN ANGEL weaves a spell that will entrap you until the final page. David Hewson’s Rome is dark and tantalizing, seductive and dangerous, a place where present-day crimes ring with the echoes of history.

I wholeheartedly agree, and asked David to tell us more.

DEB: David, I was particularly intrigued by the fact that you, as a Brit, choose to set your books in Italy, a place neither your native country nor your home,although I understand that you spend considerable time there researching the books. And although your characters are Italian, you tell your stories from an insider's viewpoint. Do you find having an outsider's perspective an advantage?

DAVID: One of the daftest pieces of advice given to wannabe writers is 'write about what you know'. It works for some people but for a lot it doesn't. Most of us are bored with what we know and take it for granted. When you write about what you don't know you have to learn about it, see it in a different light and perspective, and build your image of it from scratch. To write these books I had to move to Rome for a while, learn Italian, build my Rome brick by brick.

I'm sure it's the same with your England, Debs. Books are work and setting them somewhere alien to us makes us work harder, which hopefully makes for a more vivid world when we come to create them. I think it also makes us more willing to be bold and creative with that world too, more than we would with the one we live in day-to-day.

DEB: We are all too familiar with the fictional male cop--middle-aged or past it, alcoholic, dysfunctional, unable to sustain relationships, lives only for his job . . . and yet in Nic Costa you've given us a policeman in his twenties. Nic is a complex and fascinating character, and although he's suffered loss in the course of the series, he is coping. Was the departure from the flawed anti-hero detective a deliberate choice on your part?

DAVID: It was a very deliberate decision. Most male crime characters have been handed down from the brilliantly-drawn template of Chandler. I wanted to move away from that to concentrate on an ordinary, decent guy struggling to come to terms with a fractured, corrupt world. That seems to me a much more modern and familiar dilemma than Chandler's lone wolf, damaged individual from the Forties. Not everyone gets it, of course, and occasionally people say, 'You don't write crime at all.' And maybe they're right. Can't say I know or care. The stories and the characters are what matter, not some genre tag stuck on the side.

DEB: One of the many things I love about your books is the well-drawn ensemble cast. Again, was this a deliberate choice? (I know in my case, I began with the two main characters, and over the series the continuing cast has grown a bit like topsy.)

DAVID: I wrote the first book as a standalone, and that is very much Costa's story. When it was finished my editor suggested very clearly - with the offer of a very enticing contract - that I turn this into a series. I had to think long and hard about that. I was worried I was going to go down the path to the Reichenbach Falls, where Conan Doyle shoved Holmes to his death because he was sick of him (only to revive him later).

Avoiding character fatigue was something I really wanted to work on. My secret was to think back to Ed McBain's wonderful 87th Precinct series and give Costa a family of similarly-decent people around him. It's that which has sustained the book as they grow, I think, and attracted the TV development deal too. But I've been very careful not to let the family grow too much. There are, and always will be, only four principal protagonists: Costa, Peroni, Teresa Lupo and Leo Falcone. No more - the rest are side characters.

DEB: How did you learn about Beatrice Cenci, and why did you decide to weave the novel around this haunting story?

DAVID: I spend a lot of time in Rome hanging round places, reading, talking to people. The Cenci story is well known in Rome but not much outside, even in Italy. I have a stack of story ideas waiting to be written. Beatrice was just one of them. One of the many things I love about Rome is the way the past informs the present. It's not history, it's a part of today.

Beatrice died more than five hundred years ago yet it doesn't take much to sense her presence still in the city today. With a little research I was able to see where she lived, where she was imprisoned, buried, executed, see the painting supposedly of her in the Barberini, then finally go into the black museum of the Ministry of Justice and see the sword historians believe was used by her executioner. She's a fascinating character, part saint, part something else perhaps, and her dilemma - how far can you go to defend your own identity - seemed to me a very modern one which is why I chose it. But there are plenty more Roman stories with that feel too. The problem is always picking one.

DEB: I, for one, hope you will pick many more, and I'm wondering what's next in the offing. What about you, JR readers? Any questions for David? He'll be dropping in throughout the day to answer them, although as he's on UK time we'll have to try not to keep him up too late!


  1. Deb and David, wonderful interview! this sounds like a terrific book and character. I haven't spent a lot of time in Rome but I loved the city. So very much looking forward to reading this...

  2. Hi David,
    I laughed out loud at your pegging bad advice. Write what you know does get boring. Especially if you love research. I'm thinking of setting my next book in Marseille - and you have just sold me on the idea.

  3. Wonderful interview..! Hey, David..so lovely to see you here.

    David is also the KING of organized writing..I heard a terrific seminar he gave once about special software writers can use to keep everything accessible and in place.. Love to hear more!

  4. I was tempted to post a picture of David's desk and one of mine, but didn't have the courage . . .

    David is such a good speaker, and I was lucky enough to hear him talk about The Fallen Angel when I was in London in February--at the Italian Institute in Belgrave Square, no less. A lovely evening, with complimentary Prosecco afterwards.

    But all through his comments about writing I kept wanting to raise my hand and say "Yes! Exactly!"

  5. What a great interview! I was introduced to this series a few years ago when David spoke at the Vancouver Writer's Festival. What I love most is that it is so beautifully written. Looking forward to this next installment!

  6. I'm so jealous of you all who set your books in these great places -- I think it's not "write what you know" but "write what you WANT to know." And that would be Italy, for sure, since I'm driven by food. Or maybe France. Actually the soups in Belgium. I've clearly been shortsighted in setting my books near home.

    Congratulations on the new book, David - lovely to see you in Jungle Red - I've been a huge fan ever since I read The Lizard's Bite, set in the unforgettable world of Italian glass making.

  7. Thanks everyone - Debs is such a great interviewer. My desk is a bit messy to be honest. And I'm only organised because I'm so lazy and sloppy by nature I have to be.

    Great blog you have here.The evening in London was lovely, at the Italian Institute. Unfortunately while it was MY event I only got one glass of prosecco cos it was so good others drank it.

    I'm not pointing any fingers mind. Really. Hope to see some of you at Thrillerfest and Bouchercon or both. And today Bantam Dell told me The Fallen Angel went back for a reprint before it's even published. Very exciting!

  8. Hi David,

    Thanks for sharing your insights on writing and researching in an area that isn't your personal "home base," and the benefits of stretching yourself as a writer through a more exotic setting. I sometimes think that writing is a mixture of writing what you know and pushing yourself to explore the boundaries of unfamiliarity. I started writing fantasy novels as a teenager, in part because they allowed me to dictate the worlds. As an adult, I've gravitated towards historical fiction, mainly because those settings allow me to explore what's familiar to the modern mindset and what's alien. The ways in which those two categories overlap can be surprising, and, if done well, make for really compelling reading. I'm looking forward to reading your latest book, especially since you've integrated a historical parallel with the current events driving your novel. Can't wait to delve into your own exploration of how the past may or may not impact the present!

  9. I've just discovered I can't get David's Kindle short story, Dead Men's Socks, in the US! Boo! I was really looking forward to it.

    I loved Judith and the Holoferenes, David. Could e-books bring us the resurgence of the short story?

  10. I'm thinking of setting a short story (and I don't write short stories, but there's always a first time . . .) in the secret pub we discovered after the Italian Institute (so don't feel too sorry for David over the single glass of Prosecco!) David and I were accompanied by our lovely editor at Pan Macmillan UK, Trisha, and David's agent, and we quite literally closed down the place. They had to sweep us out:-)

    And huge congrats, David, on the reprint of The Fallen Angel! A transatlantic toast to you!!!!!!

  11. Hi Everyone. Wonderful post David. You've enticed me into looking for you books.

  12. You still can't get Dead Men's Socks??? Sigh.... I was told that had been fixed. Rights issues are such a pain.

    That pub we went into wasn't secret by the way. It was EMPTY!

  13. Sorry Debs - I failed to answer your question: ebooks and short stories. I wrote Dead Men's Socks for a special Xmas promotion by my UK publisher. I liked doing it and then added Judith and the Holy Ferns in my own right afterwards (it is available in the US for that reason).

    I think the short story to Kindle route is an interesting one and I will probably pursue it further. The trouble is finding the time, as it is for us all. Also just making yourself heard above the thousands of other people, published writers and newcomers, who are doing the same thing right now, many of whom are better at working Twitter and Facebook and the web than I ever will be.

    I'm still unsure about the whole epublishing thing to be honest. I want to see how it all looks in a year or so, when some of the people who now think it's a panacea discover what the reality it.