Paul Cleave is an established international author of crime novels. He has won the Ngaio Marsh Award three times, the Saint-Maur book festival's crime novel of the year award, and has been shortlisted for the Edgar Award, the Barry Award (both US) and the Ned Kelly Award (Australia). His 11th book, Whatever it Takes, was released last week. He is a New Zealander and lives in Christchurch, where most of his books are set.

Paul is one of the invited authors at this year's Whanganui Literary Festival and while he has not prepared anything for the festival, there are some things he knows will be discussed.
"I assume we'll talk about the new book ... I imagine we'll talk about writing in general and the story of the last 10 to 15 years, getting to where I am."
He likes to be unprepared for this sort of thing.
"If I'm being interviewed I don't want to give rehearsed answers. The audience can see that straight away and it can appear flat ... I'd rather there was spontaneity."

Paul's books delve into some dark places — of Christchurch, of the human psyche, of the deeds people are capable of.
He says he's able to maintain a distance between himself and his sometimes twisted characters.
"I don't have a problem writing it, but I certainly struggle to read it. There are books coming out where it seems people are trying to outdo other authors by making things graphically dark. My books are dark, yes, and the violence on the page will often happen to the bad guy, while what happens to innocent people is off page. I am very careful about that and it is something I am aware of.
"When I was first writing I was trying to keep this gulf between what Christchurch was really like and the reality of these books, but over the years, the gulf has narrowed."

Paul's first published book was The Cleaner, but he tried to get published before that.
"I wrote The Cleaner in 1999, 20 years ago, but prior to that I had seven or eight novels that I had completed. I started writing when I was 19 so over the next five or six years I was writing some pretty shitty stuff to get to that point. But every book you write brings you closer: you learn from each one.
"Now, I take all the advice I was given on the previous book by my editor and roll that over into the next book, so the first drafts I write now are a lot sharper."


In his latest book, Whatever it Takes, he has taken his setting and moved it a few thousand kilometres to a fictional town in the US.
"This is a book that wouldn't work in New Zealand: it needed an isolated town with an isolated police force, and we do not have that here.
"It has a claustrophobic feel to it. It's a one road in, one road out town, surrounded by thousands of miles of forestry."
Paul has been to small town US a few times but this is beyond his own personal experience.

In his early novels, while they are set in Christchurch, they could be anywhere. There are New Zealand references but the story could be international and the dialogue is not accented.
"Now I do play the New Zealand angle up, more and more, especially this year after what happened in March: I am more proud than ever to be a New Zealander."

The new book differs in that the characters really are "good ol' boys" and their vernacular and attitudes reflect the geography.
"It was a lot of fun to write."

Paul says he has never written a book exclusively for a New Zealand market.
"You write your books for an international market, because that's where you sell.
"As a New Zealand author, and the same applies to musicians and actors and other artists, you often have to prove yourself overseas before you can do well here, and that's certainly been true for me. I've gone through that and I'm out the other side where I've got a good fan base here and therefore you can play the New Zealand angle up more."

His own reading changes with time, but Stephen King has always been a firm favourite, as has Michael Connelly.
"I went through a phase when Lee Child was my favourite author but now there are other authors I admire, like Belinda Bauer, a UK author, and I've got a friend, Gilly Macmillan, who is starting to do well in the UK as well. I find her quite inspirational."
He named Michael Robotham from Australia as one of his current favourites.
"It's not just famous authors now, it's also them as people. All of those people I know, and half of them I'm close friends with, so I don't know if they're a favourite author because I love the book, or do I love the book because they're a good friend of mine?"

Paul travels a lot, often to book festivals and fairs, then makes it a priority to get in some sightseeing and throw his frisbee in as many countries as possible. He wants to throw it in 50 countries by the time he is 50. He is up to 42 at the age of 44.
"It gives me a reason to go to other countries. This last trip, the reason I did seven new countries was just to throw the frisbee. So when I travel now I base it around new countries where I can do this. It gets me out there, interacting with people I don't know."
But there's a flipside.
"It's cool when you get to travel and I love doing all those things, but it does take away from your actual writing time. For me, it's about momentum, so if I'm working on a book I'll work on it every day until I get stuck or I finish."
Interruptions can be fun, beneficial to his career, even, but disruptive to his writing.

"I can knock out a first draft in five or six weeks if things are going well, so that still leaves 40-something weeks in the year to do these other things."
Averaging a book a year, Paul has next year's book done and is working on his novel for 2021.

"For the book that comes out this week, my edit notes arrived in January, right when I'm near the end of writing the next book." That put him against the clock, so he had to put his new book aside to go back to the novel he had already drafted to comply with his editor's requirements and suggestions and meet deadline.


Paul does not plan his books.
"I have no idea where it's going. Lee Child does that, Stephen King does that, whereas guys like Jeffery Deaver will plot for six months, have it all planned out and write it. I tried it once and couldn't get the book to work. Stephen King said it really well — if he doesn't know where the book is going, then nor will the reader. I believe that.
"[My book] will either start with a character, normally a bad guy, or a what-if scenario."
Paul uses a mix of first and third persons, the former being the point of view of the killer, the latter when other people are involved.
"I like reading first person because I like being that person, and I feel if I write in first person, my reader can be in their shoes."