Joel Hames has been making a name for himself as the popular author of crime and financial thrillers. Having penned Bankers Town, The Art of Staying Dead and the most recent, Brexecution, Hames has a talent for suspense, but who is the man behind the words? I thought I’d ask him a few questions to find out.
Bankers Town was a well-written financial thriller told from the first person perspective. I found that to be an effective method to really pull the reader into the action. More intriguing however, was your vast knowledge of all the ins and outs of the banking world. What inspired this book?
Well, I had a background in precisely the industry I was writing about – I’d been working in the City for quite some time, and in that particular area of banking for nearly a decade. Contrary to the public perception, the vast majority of my colleagues were perfectly ordinary, likable people – and even those that seemed not to be usually turned out fine once I got to know them. So I thought it was important to present it that way, to play down the (general nonsensical) cocaine-and-hookers side of things, and show the reader people with normal lives who cared about their families and, for the most part, cared about their clients and colleagues and wanted to do a decent job without ripping anyone off.
At the same time, dealing on a daily basis with sums of money that were, quite frankly, insane, can really mess with your perspective, and I wanted to include a sense of that, as well, the notion that when your breakfast is a billion-dollar deal, it can seem almost natural to think that no one would bother keeping an eye on a stray fifty thousand here or there.
But most of all, I wanted to demonstrate that the financial crisis and everything that’s come from it stemmed not from some unique institutional quirk of the banking industry and the people that worked in it, but from the age-old problem of people becoming so absorbed in the world they think they live in that they stop noticing it isn’t what they thought it was. They stop noticing the damage they might be doing, they stop seeing the bigger picture, they stop looking forward and outside themselves. They live in their own worlds, castles in the sky, and it takes a shock like 2008 to bring those castles crashing down. What better format for this, I thought, than the crime thriller? What better plot than that of a man, an everyman, discovering suddenly that he has trusted the wrong people, that the people he thought had his back have been preparing to put a knife in it the whole time? That’s the way thrillers work – the world isn’t what we think it is, and suddenly and dramatically that world crumbles and the ground falls from under our feet. The financial crisis was a thriller all of its own. I just threw some crime in to put a little fictional meat on the bones.
In The Art of Staying Dead, again your narrative was first person with the protagonist, Sam Williams, a sort of down-on-his-luck relatable character.The action begins right from the get-go, and you really put the reader through the wringer with this one. For those who aren’t familiar with your work, could you talk a little about the book?
Sure, and thanks for the opportunity to tell your readers about it. The Art of Staying Dead gives us Sam Williams, a crime-and-human-rights lawyer who’s lost his love for the law and whose best days seem to be long behind him. Haunted by a case that showed him the true face of justice and suffering, he’s all but given up, and survives on the dregs of the legal system, the cases the other lawyers don’t want. But then he finds himself presented with the opportunity to get his name out there again, by touring a high-security facility and making a big noise about any abuses he might find there. And everything’s going just fine, until Sam finds himself caught up in a deadly riot and barely escapes with his life.
And that’s just the first few pages.
But the riot isn’t the point. Not really. The point is what Sam happens to see, in amongst all the blood and fire and gunshots and fear. A man who isn’t supposed to exist. A man the authorities insist he’s made up, a man who was supposed to have died years ago. Sam’s convinced he’s right, that he knows something he shouldn’t.
People are dying. Sam could be next. He should keep his mouth shut. He knows he should keep his mouth shut.
But keeping his mouth shut has never been Sam’s strong point.
Now Brexecution is the only one I haven’t yet read, and to be honest, my reluctance has been the political angle. What would you say to potential readers like me who aren’t sure about a book like this?
What I’d say is that I probably made a mistake with that title! It does rather conjure up images of a complex political debate, of angry people jabbing their fingers at each other and smiling politicians gliding smoothly from one lie to the next, doesn’t it?
But it isn’t like that at all. It’s a thriller, a black comedy thriller, really, based on the simple premise of our heroes (a taxi driver and his fare) stumbling across some potentially explosive information that the people who’ve lost it will protect at any cost. It’s fun and exciting rather than dull and intellectual; there’s little if any politics in it; it opens with a man being hung upside down from a crane by a bunch of hoods over London’s financial district; it has good guys on the run and bad guys coming after them; it was written in the space of eight days following the UK’s 2016 referendum, after I had one of those “what if….” moments and started typing away immediately; it’s neither pro- or anti- anything (except conspiracy and murder and that sort of thing); its reviews have been uniformly positive; it’s short (a novella rather than a novel, eighty pages or so in length); and it sells in eBook form for a paltry 99c (or 99p back in the UK).
What is your work-in-progress, and do you have any idea on a release date?
Well, I’ve completed the sequel to The Art of Staying Dead, which will be called Dead North and will definitely be out some time in 2017. Dead North takes Sam out of London to England’s north west, to help a Detective Inspector (Roarkes, for those who’ve read The Art) crack a case involving the murder of two police officers and a suspect who won’t speak to anyone, even his own lawyer.
I’ve also completed the first draft of Sam Williams book three, provisionally entitled No One Will Hear, which forces Sam to confront both his past and the nature of his relationship with Claire, the woman he met in The Art of Staying Dead.
Meanwhile, there’s a prequel novella, taking Sam back to the early days of his career, which is at final edit stage, and I’ve just started outlining the plot for what will be the fourth (and, I think, final) Sam Williams novel, which will deal with some topical and controversial issues that I don’t want to talk about too much until I’ve got a better idea what I’m going to write.
After that, it’ll be time to give the world some new characters, and I already have my next protagonist taking shape in my mind. She’s tough, and she knows how to get what she wants. She cares about the things she ought to care about. Oh, and she’s a criminal and the most convincing liar you’ll ever come across.
A while back, you wrote about an experience you had while working for a publishing company years ago. It was the perfect synopsis of this cutthroat business. Would you mind sharing it with my readers?
I did indeed. It’s a long read, though, so I’ve narrated it on this YouTube video. Take a look. And try to ignore the balloons in the background.
You happen to be in an interfaith marriage. Specifically for my readers, since I focus on interfaith relationships, could you tell me how you navigate through whatever religious issues may come up or if there are any difficulties at all in terms of sharing a life with someone from a different background?
I’ll be honest and up-front and say that yes, there were difficulties. I think there are difficulties in every marriage where the people come from different backgrounds, but that doesn’t have to be religious. Different races, socio-economic backgrounds, geographical regions, family aspirations – they can be just as challenging as different religions.
But my wife and I have been together now for nearly a quarter of a century, which makes me sound a lot older than I am. We struggled at first to reconcile what we both wanted, more in terms of the cultural history than the religious background, more in terms of what we thought other people wanted or needed from us than what we needed for ourselves.
And then we sat down and talked about it. We figured out what we wanted, as individuals. We realized that what others might want, well, we’d give it to them, if we could, but it wasn’t going to define our futures. And once there were only two of us in the room, rather than the weight of our families and communities and the ghosts of millennia of ancestors peering over our shoulders and shaking their heads, things suddenly became much easier.
We compromised. We educate our children in both of their religions and all of their cultures. We celebrate Chanukah and Christmas, Pesach and Easter. We let our children know how lucky they are to have so much to choose from – and that the choice of how they want to define themselves, when they’re old enough to make it, will be theirs and not ours. We celebrate it. And now, well, I couldn’t think of anything I’d rather be than part of a multi-faith family.
And that’s one of the great things about your Religion of the Heart series – it’s so real. I can tell you first-hand that the way your characters react to and resolve these challenges is honest and true-to-life, and that, for me, is the most important thing in any work of fiction.
How did you get started with your writing career? What led you to where you are now?
As part of the process I’ve mentioned above, the decision to make our own lives and do our own thing, I decided around 2008 that I’d had enough of working in the pressure cooker of the City, and hardly seeing my wife and daughter from one day to the next. We left London and moved to the other side of the country, Lancashire in the north west of England, a very rural setting, with Pendle Hill (famous for the Pendle Witches) visible from outside the window. I’m looking at it right now, or at least I would be if it wasn’t shrouded in mist and cloud this morning.
My wife had established a business that was basically portable – her clients were all over the world, so sure, she has to travel a bit, but not being based in London wasn’t a disadvantage. I had an idea to set up a business myself, and I toyed with it for a while, but my heart wasn’t in it.
The truth was, I wanted to write. I’d always wanted to write. I’d majored in English Literature at university and somewhere along the way I’d got sidetracked into a career involving money and things that I was quite good at, but didn’t exactly love. And my wife encouraged me to write. She told me this was my chance. So I started planning things out, the strands of the plot, and then I started writing it, and six months later the first draft of Bankers Town was born.
I decided, after thinking about it for a while, and remembering my brief experience in the traditional publishing industry, that I wanted to control my own writing and my own career, and that I’d therefore be better off as an independent writer. So I self-published Bankers Town, and, to my gratification and surprise, it was well-received. Sitting down to write a second novel was a no-brainer, but this time I determined that I wasn’t going to write another financial thriller, because I wanted to ensure the widest possible readership for my work.
The Art of Staying Dead has sold very well and been positively reviewed, in particular the character of Sam Williams, so I decided to follow it up with more novels featuring him. But now I’m back to toying with the traditional publishing route, and Dead North is currently with my agent. I’m not averse to going independent again, particularly since I’ll soon have a fair body of work to publish; but if I can get a decent deal (by which I mean commitment and a decent editorial and marketing contribution from a publisher who wants to develop my career, rather than a suitcase full of fifty dollar bills), I’ll take it and see what happens after that. I’m not worried. I’m quite excited, actually. I reckon there’s plenty more stories in me.
What do you do when you’re not writing?
The day job is a combination of writing, looking after the kids (Eve, aged ten, and Rose, aged five), and helping my wife with her work, which is what brings most of the household money in. For relaxation, I read, cook, do cryptic crossword puzzles, and the stuff I mention in the answer to the final question below.
Who is your favorite author?
One? One author? Nah. Can’t do that. You can have a handful.
Dead: Shakespeare, Joyce
Alive: Kazuo Ishiguro, Kate Atkinson
Tell me something about yourself which may surprise readers.
I play the piano and compose comic lyrics to well-known tunes, and I’m about eighteen months off a black belt in MMA.
Thanks so much for the opportunity to talk to your readers. I hope I haven’t sent everyone to sleep.
And thank you, Joel, for the chat.
Check out Joel Hames’ books on Amazon.
D.M. Miller is the author of the interfaith “Heart” series as well as the poetry collection, Dandelion Fuzz and memoir, Half-Jew: Searching for Identity. The product of an interfaith marriage herself, Miller’s work explores the difficult themes of religion, politics, ethnicity, culture, family, ancestry and love. See her books on Amazon.