Trevor Wood: The Man on the Street

Trevor Wood’s enthralling debut thriller, The Man on the Street, features a new crime-fiction hero in the shape of a traumatised war veteran who lives on the streets of Newcastle. Chosen as a Theakston Old Peculier New Blood author for 2020, Wood has already garnered high praise from established crime writers such as Lee Child and Harriet Tyce.

Hi Trevor! Congratulations on the recent publication of your debut novel, The Man on the Street! How did you celebrate, and how have you spread the word about your novel amid the COVID-19 lockdown and the cancellation of promotional tours?

My Waterstones book launch was scheduled for March 17th but was cancelled at lunchtime on the same day. Lockdown hadn’t kicked in at that stage so I sat in a nearby pub at the arranged time and directed people to buy the book and find me there. About 30 of them did so I had a lovely evening. I had over 20 events planned and they were all cancelled. But there’s been a great response collectively from debut authors and others. The debut authors have formed a bit of a collective and we’ve been supporting each other, identifying promotional opportunities and passing them on, pushing each other’s books on social media and even recording our own virtual panels and putting them out into the big wide world. I’m also part of a group of crime writers called Northern Crime Syndicate which I have talked a bit more about below.

Your central character is Jimmy Mullen, a homeless, Falklands War veteran who suffers from crippling PTSD. Tell us about where the idea of this unlikely, and quite reluctant hero, came from.
The starting point was reading a stat that it’s estimated that around 10% of the homeless community are ex-servicemen. It’s a startling number when you think that these men and women were once extremely capable, well-organised and disciplined people, so I was immediately curious about how that would happen and wanted to explore it within the crime genre. The idea of a homeless man seeing a crime but not being believed seemed to be a good starting point to do that. The current crime story in The Man on the Street is interspersed with short flashback chapters that show how Jimmy goes from serving in the Royal Navy to sleeping in a park, which is where we find him at the start of the novel.

There is a strong sense of family in The Man on the Street – through blood ties and within the homeless community. Is this an important aspect of your writing?

Yes, absolutely. It’s an area that fascinates me and one that, I think, lies at the heart of most great stories. The Man on the Street focuses in particular on father/daughter relationships, there are at least three in the book – you won’t be surprised to know that I have a daughter! Family relationships are such a minefield, with passions running high, fierce loyalties clashing with a real need for independence and, often, difficulties in finding that balance between control and protection which is such a tightrope, especially in the early days. And outside of birth families, there are the other ‘families’ like the homeless community. Many of them have lost connection with their original relations but nonetheless have the same human need for contact and friendship and I wanted to get over the idea that, even though they live on the street, it is still a ‘community’ and not just a collection of disparate souls looking out for themselves.

You write with affection and intimate knowledge of Newcastle, and the city becomes a really vibrant character in The Man on the Street. What do you think are the benefits of setting a novel in a real place as opposed to an imagined one?

I love Newcastle and when you love a place you really want to share it with other people. I’m not a Geordie but have lived here for 30 years and have always felt really welcome so I partially wanted to make the book a love letter to the city that has adopted me. I read a great quote from a writer called Stuart Evers which said, “Good crime writers simply describe a detective’s stomping ground, great ones give it a pulse”, and that’s what I’ve tried to do. Pretty much every location in the book is a real one and I spent a lot of time walking around the city making sure that I’d got all the details right, taking hundreds of photos to pore over at my leisure.

You were a very successful playwright before you became a novelist. How did the experience of writing The Man on the Street differ from writing plays, and did you miss the collaborative approach you enjoyed when working with your partner Ed Waugh?

Did I miss it? Yes and no. On the plus side there was more freedom. Ed and I work very well together and were very collaborative but as you both need to be completely happy with what you put out into the world there are obviously going to be times when your ideas don’t go forward and vice versa so there can be some frustration in that. On the other hand, having someone else to bounce ideas off is brilliant and when you’re done you know that at least one other person thinks the work is good enough to send out to people!
I’d like to ask you a bit about your craft: are you a disciplined writer, and how did you maintain focus and momentum over the time it took to complete your novel? How did your Creative Writing MA impact your work?

I like to think I’m a disciplined writer but like everyone else I can be easily distracted. I’ve been a full-time writer for a long time now, firstly with the plays and now with the crime novels and I’ve always tried to treat it like a full-time job, starting work at 9, ending at 5 with a lunch break in the middle, five days a week. The Crime MA at UEA was hugely influential in helping me keep up momentum. The end deliverable of the course was to produce an 80,000-word crime novel so I had a very clear target and a precise deadline. It also helped hugely that all of my work was critiqued by my fellow course members and that I had to deliver a new batch of 10,000 words to them every six weeks or so.

You are known to be a staunch supporter of the arts in the North East – can you tell us about the Northern Crime Syndicate and how it came about?
The Northern Crime Syndicate is a group of six crime writers, all based in the north of England. My fellow members are Judith O’Reilly, Chris McGeorge, Robert Scragg, Rob Parker and A.M. (Adam) Peacock. We had met at various events and festivals over the years, and the idea is that we are ‘stronger together’. We can offer ready-made panels to bookshops and festivals and can also make sure that we support each other in a similar way to the debut writers I described earlier. We had arranged a series of events over the summer but sadly they were all cancelled so we’ve instead produced a lot of virtual events including panels, a quiz and even a couple of live improv nights where we make up a crime story on the spot with the help of the audience. We’ve also started recording podcasts with other people from the publishing world, including writers, agents and editors.  Here’s one of the improv panels, called Whose Crime Is It Anyway?, and you can listen to our podcasts here.

Who are your crime-writing heroes, and what do you look for in a crime novel? What have you been reading during lockdown?

I love a lot of the American crime writers like Dennis Lehane, Michael Connolly and Lou Berney, and amongst the current English crime writers I’m a big fan of Amer Anwar, Joseph Knox and Dominic Nolan, who are all operating at the grittier end of the spectrum. I have to mention Harriet Tyce, whose Blood Orange is quite brilliant. Harriet was on my Crime MA so it’s been fascinating to see how that book has gone from a germ of an idea to a huge best seller. During lockdown I have shaken things up a bit and, for obvious reasons, tried to read the occasional bit of uplit – I particularly enjoyed Beth O’Leary’s The Flatshare.

Congratulations on being one of four new writers to have been chosen for the Theakston Old Peculier New Blood panel, with Val McDermid praising “the irresistible and devastating way in which crime fiction shines a light on our times”. How does it feel being recognised for such an accolade?

I’m obviously chuffed to bits. I’ve been going to the Harrogate Festival for the last couple of years and watched the New Blood panels through slightly envious eyes, so being chosen to be on one is fantastic. There are so many good crime debuts out there that it’s a massive boost to your confidence to be chosen as one of the best by someone like Val. I’ve been lucky enough to have had great help and lovely quotes from people like Lee Child, Elly Griffiths and Mari Hannah – the crime-writing community is incredibly supportive – and this is definitely the icing on the cake.

And finally, what advice would you give to anyone thinking of entering the Caledonia Novel Award 2021?

My main advice to all new writers is always the same. Find other writers whose opinions you trust and show them your work. I am part of a small Newcastle-based writing group who meet up every three weeks and share around 2,000 words of our latest work for constructive criticism. It’s an absolutely vital part of my process and makes my writing immeasurably better. It was a very similar process on my MA and it’s genuinely invaluable. The Man on the Street had been read, bit by bit, by around 15 other writers by the time I sent it to an agent and every one of them helped improve it in one way or another.
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