Crime writer's stories go from Auckland to Hollywood

Local writer Ben Sanders tells Greg Fleming about transposing his previously Auckland-based crimes Stateside and finding his storylines while daydreaming.
Crime writer Ben Sanders. Photo / Ted Baghurst
Crime writer Ben Sanders. Photo / Ted Baghurst

Ben Sanders, New Zealand's hottest crime writer, has had a busy morning.

After the movie option Warner Brothers picked up expired late last year (Bradley Cooper was attached to star and produce) there's been renewed interest in the movie rights to his fourth - and finest - novel, American Blood; there's even talk of a bidding war.

He was supposed to hear back this morning by email from his American agent Daniel Myers but, Sanders tells me as we sit at a Takapuna cafe for our interview, "nothing's confirmed". He's just finished the final edits on American Blood's sequel, which will be out later this year.

Sanders is taller than I expected; quick to smile and effusive - the epitome of a well-brought-up North Shore kid. During our 90-minute interview, he raves about the Michael Mann movie Collateral ("when that body lands on the taxi, the whole tone of the movie just shifts"), James Ellroy ("one of the greatest crime writers ever") and American diners ("I love them and went to as many as possible while I was there. I remember at one, we had seven cups of coffee for $3.87!") but says the New Mexico all-night diner, the scene of American Blood's memorable second chapter, was drawn from his imagination.

Despite a two-month "recce", the United States is new territory for the 25-year-old but it's been good to him. These days he writes three days a week and works as a civil engineer the other two. After three critically acclaimed Auckland-based books that delved into the city's seedier sides - gangs, kidnapping, P houses, corruption - and featured the troubled detective Sean Devereaux and his mate, the slightly more troubled PI John Hale, American Blood is Sanders upsized.

The new hero is Marshall Grade, an ex-cop now in the witness protection (Witsec) programme, a man sick of running and haunted by his past - and, like Lee Child's Reacher, unwilling to turn a blind eye to evil.

There are better guns, nastier bad guys, bigger body counts and, yes, a much bigger pay-day for its author.

When I ask Sanders if he can now make a living off his writing, he says probably, but he enjoys escaping the characters in his head in the two days away from his desk. Despite his growing international reputation - one reviewer thought American Blood "sets the standard for gritty, action-packed thrillers" - Sanders is still relatively new to the media glare.

He hasn't yet done the book signings and press tours standard for his American contemporaries.

He has a website but, by his own admission, is "hopeless" on social media. His upcoming appearance at the Auckland Writers Festival will be a rare public one in his hometown.

Despite this, he has managed what most local writers only dream of: a deal with a big US publisher (his first three books were with HarperCollins NZ) and a very good chance of it being filmed by a big-time studio.

Ask how he managed it and he says it was down more to luck than good management.

His agent got him a 15-minute meeting at Macmillan in New York. Sanders pitched Only The Dead, the Auckland novel he'd just finished. They were sceptical about selling a New Zealand-set novel to the United States market and asked him to write a book set there. New Mexico became the setting after he was told Breaking Bad maestro Vince Gilligan wanted a Western setting for his next project.

Not long afterwards Sanders gave them 50 pages. I tell him it's among the best openings of a crime novel I've read in a long time.

"Oh thanks," he says. "The start of a book is always where I feel most energised."

It was optioned immediately (two studios bidding on it; Warner Brothers won) and he wrote the rest of American Blood in just three months.

"Turns out Gilligan wanted a cowboys and Indians Western," says Sanders laughing. "He'd already done the New Mexico desert thing."

The book went through five editors - who purged all the "Kiwi-isms", petrol stations to gas stations - and suggested certain pieces be reworked. That took two months.

When I ask about research Sanders quotes Lee Child - "perceived authenticity is just as good as 'genuine' authenticity." Imagination is key to Sanders; he sees a scene and writes it rather than vice-versa. Despite the extensive gun play in American Blood, he's fired a gun just once (a Colt 45 at an Auckland gun range) and pretty much guessed all the police procedural aspects of the Auckland trilogy (spot-on, too). His skill with dialogue - Sanders writes great dialogue - seems God-given.

"I love writing dialogue. I have lots of fun with it. I find that part easy."

But go looking for signs of his damaged charactersin their author and you'll come up empty. Even Sanders seems surprised at his creations.

"I've always written about these strong and capable but damaged characters. In terms of where they come from, it's a mystery."

Apart from writing best-sellers that feature ex-Iraqi psychopaths with a cage of girls in the basement, his life is standard North Shore suburban. He still lives at home, he's diabetic, "so drinking's pretty much ruled out", hangs out with his girlfriend and listens to music his dad's always playing (Ryan Adams, Wilco, Cat Power) and reads lots of crime fiction. Don Winslow's The Cartel is a recent favourite.

It was Frederick Forsyth's The Day Of The Jackal, which he read aged 11 in "sustained, silent reading" at intermediate school, that set him on his path. Then he dug deep into Michael Connelly and Lee Child. Locally, he likes Paul Cleave.

"I've always been a daydreamer. Even from a young age I was thinking up stories. At university, I was in maths and physics overload. It was a nice detox to sit on the bus at the end of the day and dream up plots. I've never plotted on paper; they're just there in my head."

I remind him of a detail in his second book, By Any Means, when the protagonist sees an old car on the side of the road. A hand-written sign reads, 'Please stop breaking into my car. I am a single mum with no money.'

Did you really see that?

"Yes, in Auckland; such a sad sight. That was a woman fed up and tearing her hair out. And that's the great thing about fiction. In real life, the most you can do is put a sign in your car window. In fiction, if someone breaks into your car they're going to be in trouble - especially in one of my books."

Ben Sanders appears with Paula Hawkins, Ian Austin and Elsbeth Hardie on the Crime Stories panel free event at the Auckland Writers Festival, Friday, May 13, 1pm Limelight Room.

- Canvas

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