Have you ever wondered what the Devil does when he needs a break from spewing evil and bartering for souls? Discussing his new crime novel HellCorp (Urbane Publications), author Jonathan Whitelaw talks about all things Hellishly funny and fiction.
HellCorp tells the story of the Devil's need to take a vacation, and the subsequent setting up of a company to do his job while he takes a break. How did this idea come about? To tell you the truth, I'd always wanted to write a crime novel. But there are so many great writers out there doing such a fantastic job, I wasn't sure if I could do the genre justice. One thing that did bother me about crime is the sheer amount of antihero, cop-on-the-edge characters. If we've seen one detective who works too much, drinks too much, stays away from his/her family too much, we've seen them all. So I got to thinking who the ultimate anti-hero would be. Who would be so repulsive, so utterly abhorrent and miserable, who would fit that bill? Well, there was only really one candidate after all. From that point on I knew what I had in mind and the story built itself around that central figure of the Devil.
I really liked the idea of him being stripped of his powers and being annoyed and infuriated by that, and us humans. And it was an absolute joy to see what a character like that would do put into a crime fighting scenario. Of course, there's plenty more going on. I loved the idea of the Devil being smart enough to keep everything ticking over while he was away. It's just so very him. He never gives us a break! So again it was great to tie all of that in and put together, what I hope, is a very special story and something completely different. The story is genred as a comedy. Can you describe the type of humour a little, to which kind of readers the book would most appeal? Ah, the ultimate question! And a good one too! It's very much a comedy but there are lots of other categories it falls into too. Just because I like to give bookshop workers a headache! I'm a baddie. Interestingly I've very rarely seen it on the same shelf twice in shops. It's been in crime, general fiction, sci-fi and horror. And I'm actually really proud of that fact. When I was writing the book I was very keen to make sure that all the different elements of the story got a fair share and voice for development.
Feedback from readers and critics has been really interesting too. Some people have picked up on the comedy elements, others on the thriller and mystery. Then there are folk who have loved the urban fantasy overtones and mythology too. Then there are people who have just loved it all - which is incredibly humbling and really cool! In short, I think there's something for everyone in HellCorp. Thrills, spills, chills and kills! And there's a juicy whodunnit in there too, just for good measure. Do you think the Devil really deserves a holiday? Does this mean, then, that he needs time away from sinning? We all need a break! In many ways, is he just like the rest of us? I think there's a little Devil in all of us. Some more than others unfortunately! One of the challenges I face writing for a character like the Devil is that everybody knows what he/she/it is like, no matter what your background, religion, etc. So I wanted to put my own stamp and my own characteristics of somebody to lead my novel and story. So yes, there are times where the Devil in HellCorp isn't this great, enigmatic figure of evil - beyond the realms of human emotion. But quite the opposite, somebody who feels the same way we do at times. I'm a huge classic rock fan and I always remember reading an interview with the late, great Lemmy from Motorhead. He was on a tour bus later in his career and was asked if he ever got tired of his job. Fans and the general public would automatically think - how could he? He's a rock star, what he does isn't real work! And that's certainly true, particularly given how hard each of us does work in our respective fields. But he answered: "Yeah. I get tired of it, the same way a plumber gets up some mornings and doesn't want to go to work. I'm the same at times. It's human nature." And that really stuck with me throughout the writing process. If you've got a character who has done his job, and done it well for thousands of centuries, then surely there will come a time when he wants a break. Who wouldn't! However, as we see in HellCorp, things are never quite as easy when you're a deity. And there's always trouble just around the corner. When God steps in to prevent the Devil from holidaying, do you feel the Devil is being punished unfairly, or should he be made to work even harder for his sins? That's an interesting one. I read a review of HellCorp that said the Devil was TEMPTED by God to solve the murder of a man who took 40 years to die. I thought that was a fascinating way to put it, a proper role reversal. And yeah, it's exactly like that. Writing the Devil and God in HellCorp was a real pleasure. Their dialogue and scenes together are among my favourite I've ever written. Having that love/hate hate/hate relationship and feeling it crackle and spark was something that I think all writers hope for. I used to be incredibly excited to get to scenes and set pieces with the two - just so I could watch the sparks fly! One thing I always wanted with their relationship was the sense of justice and the right thing to do. When you have a character like yhe Devil, it's all too easy to get carried away with tricks and conniving behaviour. God (or He and She as He is referred to in the novel) is a straight arrow - but only when it morally suits them. The Devil's problem in HellCorp is that he's too honest - he says as much. While God still tries to tow the company line of good vs evil etc, the Devil is much more blase about it all. But in answer to your question: yes, God is punishing the Devil. He's punishing him because he knows that will get right up his nose. And there's nothing He likes more than to do that to his oldest, wisest, closest foe and friend. HellCorp is your second novel, following Morbid Relations, but your first thriller. Was this change a conscious decision, or did the story lead you down that route? It was very much a conscious decision. As I mentioned before the character was the starting point for HellCorp and it grew arms and legs from there. I've always loved thrillers, action and crime. That's in literature, movies, TV, etc. I grew up on a healthy diet of Die Hard, Lethal Weapon and Stallone/Arnie/Jean-Claude Van Damme movies growing up. I adored the Tintin books and I still think, to this day, that Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade is THE best movie ever made. Forget Shawshank Redemption and The Godfather - Harrison Ford, Sean Connery and the Holy Grail will come up trumps EVERY time! With that in mind, as a writer (I've been writing seriously since I was 17) I knew I always had the chops for it. I always try to write books and stories that I would want to hear and read. So while HellCorp might not be the out-and-out action romp of a James Bond novel or a Jason Bourne story, I think there are elements in there that have bled into my writing from those influences. Above anything else I always like to entertain and tell a good story. I've always believed that if your story is good as a writer, it doesn't matter if you tell it as a play, TV show, comic book or in my case novel. And hopefully my writing does that for readers. Where would be the Devil's preferred holiday destinations? Anywhere hot! With a cocktail in one hand and nobody about for miles. Or if he was in a particularly tasty mood, somebody nearby being gently made miserable by something inane and annoying. Mosquitoes, for example. Or there not being any sun loungers left as they've already all been nabbed. Something to put a crimp in somebody's day. He loves a bit of misery. The great thing about the Devil is that he has all of time, space and eternity to choose from. A fishing trip to Neptune? No problem. Roasting marshmallows on Salem Witch Trials bonfires? Easy. Even a sightseeing trip to watch the Big Bang isn't out of the question. I think as long as he's getting some peace and quiet without having to do EVERYTHING then he's happy. Not many of us could argue with that I think. Is the final product what you had initially envisioned for HellCorp, or has the plot altered a lot since the initial conception? I'm very lucky in that I have a fantastic publisher in Urbane. And I truly mean that. The whole team has been so supportive of HellCorp from the very beginning that I couldn't have asked for anything better. From edits to suggestions to a frankly unbelievable cover, I really can't thank them enough. They're a fantastic publisher and they get behind their authors. I know that HellCorp as a story wouldn't be anywhere near as successful and positive in its outcome as it has been without them. And I'm delighted to be a part of their ranks. In that vein, the story wasn't changed at all. The characterisation, pacing and general experience is exactly as I envisioned. And I thank the team for that. Did you encounter any severe hurdles during writing, or did the Devil tend to your every needs? He most certainly did! In a good way though, the best way! One challenge I did find was giving every element of the story the right amount of room and space to breathe. As I mentioned before, there's a little bit of something for everybody in this book. Striking the balance between these was a real test of my craftsmanship but ultimately one that I like to think has made me a better writer. Do I make this scene more action packed? Should I tone down the fantasy element here? What about the relationship between X and Y - is it coming along at the rate I want it to? Every writer wrestles with these questions, and it's part of the process, I guess. I like to challenge myself as a writer and that's one of the reasons I wrote this kind of book off the back of Morbid Relations - which is completely different, as you said. I never want to get complacent with my writing and the best way to do that, for me, is to keep myself on edge with what I'm doing. Whether that's plot or setting, style or voice. Anything I know that keeps me challenged is a great thing. Now that HellCorp is unleashed on the world, what do you hope for its future? First and foremost I want people to buy, read and review it! Seriously, you would all put me in the good books with my publisher if you did that. Awesome, thank you! I hope people enjoy it. I hope that readers go on the adventure and enjoy the twists and turns in the pages. But I'd also like readers to come away from the book thinking that perhaps they quite LIKED The Devil and could understand where he was coming from in the end. A friend of mine told me recently that she'd actually fallen in LOVE with him a little bit. I referred her straight to a psychiatrist of course and she's doing well - left a review and everything! But seriously, I hope that HellCorp continues to garner the positivity and great feeling that it's already done in the few short months it's been available. A reader told me a few weeks ago that it actually helped her jump start her getting back into reading. And that really is the ultimate compliment to a writer. To think that a story, characters, etc. that I created actually helped somebody get back to reading and ENJOYING it was very, very humbling. It's something I'll always carry with me, throughout my career. A very special feeling indeed and one that I never, ever take for granted. Being a professional writer really is a privilege. And I'm honoured to be able to do it and entertain so many people. There isn't enough happiness in this world. So any amount, small or big, I can bring is an honour. Is the Devil on your shoulder? Always! It's quite funny when you have a character like that - you find yourself thinking "What would he say or do in this scenario?" In fairness, I have lots of characters in other work and HellCorp that I think that about. It's part of being a writer, you live with these people day in and day out. When you start talking to them - that's when you're in trouble. I recall one evening when I was writing HellCorp, my wife (who the book is dedicated to) called on her way home from work. She asked if I could put the dinner on for her coming home. To which I replied, in all sincerity and honesty, "I can't, darling, I'm writing a conversation between the Devil and God about the end of the world." Needless to say she wasn't happy when she came home to find the chilli was still in its base elements in the cupboard and fridge. But that's a sign of how much, as a writer, you are enjoying writing characters and a book. You get sucked in and lost in the world you're creating. Hopefully that comes across in the novel. I love to read something that the writer clearly had an absolute riot writing. It makes for so much more exciting, invigorating an experience for everybody involved. And for the record - I've made dinner every single night since that one occasion. It's the least I can do, right? Can you offer any tantalising insights into what readers can expect from your writing in the future?
You're trying to get me to fess up some spoilers, aren't you? My lips are sealed!
I don't want to give too much away, particularly for those who haven't got to the end of HellCorp yet (WARNING: There's a big bit that says you HAVE TO REVIEW IT!). But what I will say is that there's another HellCorp novel with my publisher at the moment.
As you can probably tell, I had such a great time writing for the Devil and his various bumps and scrapes, it became clear that I had lots more trouble I could get him into. Put it this way - there's always another holiday to take. And there's always, ALWAYS a crime going unsolved somewhere in this world. So watch this space!