A bomb blast at a Jacksonville, Florida hotel kills 18 people. It is the first of many bombings hitting cities like San Francisco, San Antonio, St. Louis and Cincinnati. A serial bomber has been at large for a year and the body-count has already risen to 42. Nicknamed “Hellbomber“, he is unpredictable with the exception of the postcards he leaves at each scene: monuments indicating which city he’ll strike next. On each postcard, just four words are written: WISH YOU WERE HERE.
Leonard Drucker, a famous, soon-to-be-divorced, misanthropic and technophobe writer, who has chosen to live on a remote island in Alaska, is tricked by the FBI, led by determined Special Agent Peter Bergin, and his literary agent and friend, Kate Lowell, into returning to mainland USA and interviewing a dark-minded criminal he knows from his past: Eugene “The Anarchist Bomber” Ford. Ford is another serial bomber, best-known for his spree of explosions in the 90s, locked up in a maximum security prison near Denver.
Read on for an exclusive interview with Simon Duke, author of Postcards From Hell.
S.R.: Congrats on your latest book, Postcards from Hell! What was the inspiration for your novel?
S.D.: Thanks, Sabrina. My influences are multiple and varied, sometimes they are born out of a song, everyday life, eureka moments when you least expect them, or drunken conversations with friends! However, if I had to come up with a shortlist of inspirational authors and books which helped me write Postcards from Hell, I’d have to mention the works of Michael Connelly, RJ Ellory, Henning Mankell, as well as authors like Dennis Lehane, John Grisham, or Paul Auster. Authors I read influence me in one way or another, and I’m always on the lookout for new favorite writers. The movie or TV series references are also numerous in the book: Silence of the Lambs, Manhunter, Speed, or the Netflix series released quite coincidentally while I was writing Postcards from Hell: Unanabomber. And I’ve always wanted to write about a lone wolf, misanthrope author living alone on an isolated island far from the madness of the world we live. Len Drucker is a homage to the Christopher Knights, Christopher McCandlesses, Ted Kaczynskis and other passionate recluses of this world.
S.R.: How did you get into writing about crime fiction?
S.D.: I was born in Stoke-on-Trent in the UK. I lived in countryside England and am fortunate to have had a very happy childhood. My family moved to France when I was eleven and I was parachuted into a French school without really speaking French. It took me a while to get up-to-speed with the other kids and I was (and I guess I always will be) the ‘Angliche’. Thus my tendency to favor underdogs. I grew up watching many American film classics and loved the 80s films and music (some of it) and read many American novels. I grew fond of the modern gangster and of the transition from film noir and epic to the more gritty and realistic portrayal of crime in more recent times. Let’s say that my writing sort of reflects bits of all that. They are fountains of inspiration for me.
If I were to put a date on my entry into crime fiction, I’d say 2012. I started work on Out of Bounds in 2012 (my first novel — published in 2014). Until then I’d only managed to write short stories, and my writing was infrequent, despite my mind over-spilling with ideas and scenari. One day, I had car trouble on my way to work. The mechanic quoted me a hefty amount of money to carry out the necessary repair work — an amount I wasn’t willing to spend. I began commuting by train and rediscovered the joys of reading. By doing so I discovered crime fiction authors whom I’d never heard of before. Back then I was subject to binge reading. I’d read a novel or two per week, good ones and not so good ones. All this again influenced me immensely. And at some point I asked myself, and why not me? This led me to writing the opening scene of Out of Bounds. Nine months later, I’d penned down the draft of my first novel.
Crime fiction is my favorite genre. Not only does it incorporate elements of suspense, thriller, hard-boiled, procedural genres, but it also enables me to write eye-catching stories while seamlessly blending in well-written prose (well, at least I like to think so!) Crime fiction offers a lot of scope for writers. Within the genre I can weave in all sorts of other styles such as romance, history, psychology, and even social commentary. Besides, crime fiction is a great place to put your ordinary Joe in extraordinary circumstances, in situations that people would never experience in ordinary life. This then gives me possibility of putting my characters through a lot of human emotions, and that makes the process even more interesting.
S.R.: What sort of research did you do for Postcards from Hell?
S.D.: Read, watch, sleep, repeat. Read, watch, sleep, repeat. I really enjoy researching prior and during my writing. Most often it is carried out using the Internet or by reading books and watching videos. For locations, I tend to favor the places I’ve already been to and that I’m more or less familiar with. However, there again, the Internet is a handy tool when it comes to researching details (street names, addresses, overall vibe of the area …) when lacking your own photographic support, especially when I wanted to find out what life was like on a distant Alaskan island.
The challenge whilst writing Postcards from Hell was exploring the minds of arsonists, firebugs as well as self-proclaimed anarchists, and reading through the lines of some populist anti-societal, somewhat political ramblings they are eager to share with the world. It was also fascinating to look at historical press coverage of bombing incidents or terrorist attacks such as the Boston Marathon bombs. At times it can be a very intense and exciting experience. I carried out similar research for a previous novel (The Perfectionist) in which I explored the minds of serial killers and what their motives are. Be it serial killers or serial bombers: they fascinate me. In fiction, they are highly stylized and even real-life criminals have become celebrity monsters through media coverage. Their behavior seems inexplicable to us, so we feel a duty to try and understand what their motives are. Eugene Levine in writing Postcards from Hell could be considered a pure evil genius.
S.R.: Any advice for aspiring crime fiction writers?
S.D.: Like me, I am sure you have tons of story ideas. Note them down as soon as they begin to gain in substance in your mind. Look into them deeper and weigh the possibility of taking some further and write them up. Basically, start off with a story idea and write down a summary. Either the rest of the story will come quick, or begin writing a few scenes and things will gradually fall into place. And then at some point stand back and reflect on the full narrative. As soon as you have a solid enough backbone to a story, flesh it out and divide the result into chapters. From there on, write bit after bit, chapter after chapter. Set yourself realistic goals (such as a certain amount of words to write per week/month) and above all do not hate yourself if for some reason or another you do not meet your targets. There are times when the inspiration does come and you have to cash in to churn out more words than usual. Other times you may realize the storyline is weak and needs beefing up, or you have a change in mind with regard to how events unfold. So go back to the backbone and fit these new ideas in.
A literary agent once told me that I write with flair. I’d argue that — no matter what the critics or your friends and family tell you — you mustn’t be afraid to write, even if you think that what you’re writing isn’t of the highest quality. That’s a normal feeling. I believe that it’s the writing exercise that’s important. Put as much as you can on paper. It’s only afterwards that you do the sorting out. You have to believe in yourself and your capacity as a writer because if you don’t, no-one else will. If you don’t get published via the traditional route, then don’t get discouraged; you can self-publish. Your will to succeed and your desire to share your stories with the outside is a powerful motivator. Simply put, never give up.
You have to believe in yourself and your capacity as a writer because if you don’t, no one else will. However, I don’t have any advice on how to become famous. I’d like to get there myself and reach out to as many people as possible with my books, but that takes time and non-stop work. If you don’t get published via the traditional route, then publish by your own means. It’s not a defeatist attitude; on the contrary it’s a sign of courage showcasing your will and desire to succeed in spite of the obstacles in your way. If you don’t secure a publisher’s representation the first time round, then you’ve always got a second chance, a third, or a fourth. Let me stress that self-publication is also the fastest way to become a published writer. A Time to Kill is John Grisham’s first legal-thriller. And, yes, it was initially self-published. Grisham’s talent was only really spotted after publishing The Firm.
S.R.: What do you hope readers take away from Postcards from Hell?
S.D.: Postcards from Hell is my third adult novel and it’s been 4 years since The Perfectionist and three since my foray into crime fiction for teenagers (Suspect N°1 was published in 2017 by Talents Hauts Editions) I’d like readers to think: Simon still has it. More seriously, at the risk of sounding cheesy, I simply wish readers to have a good ol’ fun time, enjoy my plot developments and characters, and take in the action as it unfolds. Postcards from Hell may be gritty and violent and we have seen our fair share of death, devastation and human absurdity in 2020, but for several hours or days, readers will be able to put real-life aside, escape into an emotional rollercoaster, and find a new source of inspiration.
SIMON DUKE was born in Stoke-on-Trent (UK) in 1979. He obtained a B.A. in French with Film Studies in 2001 and has been working in journalism ever since. He currently lives in France. Out of Bounds, his first novel, was published in 2014. His second novel, The Perfectionist, was released in 2016. Simon has also written a French-English bilingual thriller novella for teenagers. Suspect N°1 was published in June 2017 by Parisian YA publisher Talents Hauts Editions.
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Simon Duke says
Thanks so much Sabrina for this great interview!