Life is hard for The Devil and he desperately wants to take a holiday. Growing weary from playing the cosmic bad guy, he resolves to set up a company that will do his job for him so the sins of the world will tick over while he takes a vacation. God tells him he can have his vacation just as soon as he solves an ancient crime.
But nothing is ever easy and before long he is up to his pitchfork in solving murders, desperate to crack the case so he can finally take the holiday he so badly needs…
Linda Hepworth recently reviewed Jonathan Whitelaw’s HellCorp for nbmagazine.co.uk and found it to be “not only quirky, irreverent and very funny, but also thought-provoking in its exploration of ideas about good and evil, love and hate, the importance of relationships, hypocrisy, and the need to understand and respect other people’s points of view, to mention just a few themes”. Keen to know more about the inspiration and the writing process behind HellCorp and its forthcoming sequel, The Man in the Dark, Linda put some questions to author Jonathan Whitelaw:
Linda Hepworth: What motivated you to write HellCorp?
Jonathan Whitelaw: Wow, there’s a really tough question to start off with! Writing is my passion and I’m lucky enough to be able to call it my profession too. I call it the Double-P and something I’m hugely honoured and privileged to do full time!
HellCorp was exactly that, a passion project. I’m a huge fan of crime fiction and urban fantasy. Combining the two isn’t as common or popular as it may first seem, for some odd reason. I’d always convinced myself that I wasn’t going to be a crime writer, the reason being I’m not nearly clever enough to put together something as intricate and detailed as some of the best genre writers out there.
But I’m also a rebel at heart and really, really hate being told I can’t do something. So with that in mind I always figured that if I was to have a crack at crime, I’d do it in a world I’m familiar with, enjoy and would like to read myself.
LH: What made you decide to make the Devil your hero (or should that be anti-hero!) and why as a character charged with solving an ancient crime?
JW: The anti-hero is a popular motif in crime fiction, as in all genres these days. If we’ve read one cop-on-the-edge with a damaging social, professional or combination life then we’ve read them all. I thought about what kind of anti-hero I’d like to read about, what I’d like to write, and figured that if I was going to do it, then who better than the ULTIMATE anti-hero – The Devil. And from that starting point the whole project grew and grew.
I love a challenge and I love to challenge myself as a writer. I’ve always been of the belief that if you get comfortable in your writing then it’s the first step towards laziness and lethargy. Trying to pass off Old Nick as a pleasing, endearing, almost loveable character certainly was a challenge. What can I say, I’m a glutton for punishment. But ultimately it let me work on and with a character that I knew was going to spearhead this unconventional thriller and, hopefully, leave his mark on the reader.
LH: Your story challenges many religious, moral and ethical certainties. Do you think it’s important that there should be much more debate and openness about different belief systems?
JW: Debate and openness are the cornerstones of human society. I’ve always believed that. But they come with a caveat – tolerance. I’m from an agnostic background, my parents didn’t really raise me in a religious household. But at school I always enjoyed religious classes as it opened up this whole new world of beliefs, understanding and perceptions of why we’re here and who put us where we are. I’ve always found the philosophical nature of religion and morality to be absolutely fascinating. And, like I said, we can all never stop learning.
HellCorp gave the unique opportunity to explore all of these things from a unique perspective. It let me try and think and get my head around what it is to be human and our place in the universe. But it also allowed me to think about where we would rank in a system that’s run by creatures more powerful than ourselves. Like I said before, I love a challenge. Making The Devil, something that everybody has an interpretation of, the central character opened up so many doors and opportunities to have fun and spark debate. And I had an absolute joy in doing so.
Ultimately, I think it’s a book about tolerance. Tolerance of belief, life, your own place in this great big world and how others can damage, affect, change and sometimes save you.
LH: Each one of your characters was very vivid and added something important to the developing story. I had a lot of fun getting to know them; did you have as much fun creating them?
JW: Oh, absolutely. Who wouldn’t have fun writing snarky, back and forth dialogue between The Devil and God? Especially when they’re bickering like two teenage siblings. I always remember my wife calling me one evening when I was in the thick of a sparring match between the two. She asked me to put the dinner on for her coming home from work. To which I rather flippantly replied “I can’t darling, I’m busy writing an argument between God and The Devil about his holidays.”
Needless to say, I’ve made the dinner every night since then.
You know, I had an absolute joy in creating every character in the novel. And it’s been really cool to read reviews and speak with readers who seem to be enjoying them too. Especially Alice – The Devil’s more than capable secretary! I had no idea that she would become so popular with readers but everybody seems to adore her. Which is fantastic! I think we all need an Alice in our lives – a person who doesn’t take any nonsense from the incarnate of evil, knows how to run things and is completely comfortable in her own skin. And she gets the job done, by hook or by crook!
LH: I understand that you studied psychology at university and wonder how much influence you think your studies have had on your ability to create such acutely observed, memorable characters?
JW: Well, firstly, thank you for that very kind commentary on my characters. That means a great deal. As a writer, you spend so much time with these people, usually on your own. They take up little parts of your life here and there. I’m a great believer of feeding off of real life and its strange, weird, wonderful ways. So I’ll regularly put my characters into scenarios that have jumped off of the street and into my head. And when they hit the shelves it’s always a bit nerve wracking because it’s like sending your characters out there, back into the world to be looked at, prodded, poked and pinched.
As for my psychology, yes, absolutely that does feed into my work. Observation is a huge part of the science and it’s something that I know influences my way of writing and, indeed, what I write about. While I’ve never practised it professionally, the subject still fascinates me and I had a wonderful time studying it full time at uni. Why and how are always what I ask myself when I’m writing – whether that’s plot, characters, setting, pace, development etc. And those two questions are straight from my psychology background.
It’s fascinating though because I don’t often think about just how much of an influence it has been on my work. Only when you start to talk about your books do you realise just how important it can be. Although I’ll try not to think too hard about what letting The Devil loose on earth as he solves a murder case says about by subconscious!
LH: I know that by the end of the story I found myself rooting for the Devil (perhaps I should be worried?!). Having now spent so much time with the Devil and God, whose company would you prefer if you were marooned on a desert island?
JW: Yes, you should be worried. VERY worried! No, I jest.
This is very, very difficult question. And it could have severe repercussions for my afterlife! I know I said I’m agnostic but you just don’t want to take the risk sometimes!
If I had to be stuck on an island with one of them, I highly doubt either of them would particularly enjoy my company. The Devil, being the ironic stickler for the rules, would probably have me doing all the busy and dirty work. Gathering wood for a fire, building a shelter, hunting for food, organising the rescue and escape mission. He’s not going to lift a finger in that respect given he outranks a mere mortal like me.
Then again, I imagine he’d have a lot of good stories and be very good at keeping us entertained. I also reckon he wouldn’t want to hang around on the desert island for very long so we’d probably be saved sooner rather than later – thanks to that enormous ego and macabre genius of his. Although knowing his luck we’d be picked up by pirates or some other horrible thing. And it was probably his fault we ended up on the island in the first place.
As for God – well, that’s the ultimate prize isn’t it. To be marooned in the middle of nowhere with the creator of the universe. You could ask as many questions as you liked, press for the meaning of life and everything else that there’s ever been. Then when you’ve finished God would probably just rescue you both and you’d live happily ever after.
Very tempting. Very tempting indeed.
Being the dedicated professional writer I am – I’m going to go with The Devil. If I don’t back my protagonist then who is. There we go, an eternity of damnation awaits!
LH: I found your story to be a very visual one and can easily imagine it being adapted for the screen. Did you envisage this as you were writing and has any interest been shown by a film or television company?
JW: I’ve always been a very visual writer, even from when I was first able to write as a child! I used to play with my Star Wars figures and Lego and then go away and write stories for them. And I’d always have a keen eye and imagination as to how everything would look.
When I grew up into my teens I started writing more seriously – longer form short stories and novellas. While the language, plot, characters etc. have become more sophisticated (hopefully), that visualisation has always remained. I can usually “see” what’s unfolding on the page – especially for big set pieces, action sequences and the like. It’s just been the way I’ve always written.
I’ve also always been drawn to writers who have this style too. I’m a huge movie and TV fan and it feels like there’s very little between the two visually now. Growing up on a healthy diet of Star Wars, Indiana Jones, 80s action movies and such, they all had that very visual, graphic, stylistic style that painted the screen in such mesmerising colours and landscapes. Indy running from a giant boulder, Bruce Willis leaping off a skyscraper as a helicopter crashes, that iconic image of Darth Vader and Luke Skywalker squaring off in silhouette – it’s all etched in my memory.
Creating that same type of iconography has always been a major motivator in my writing. I’m lucky enough to work with ideas that lets me create these types of scenarios and worlds. Of course, there’s only so much I can do as the writer. Hopefully the reader can paint their own images and interpretations of what I write. And that’s an idea that I absolutely love. Writing is the gift of sparking an imagination into life. It’s a real honour to be able to do that for people.
As for the interest – watch this space!
LH: I don’t know whether you believe in the concepts of heaven and hell, but have you ever had an experience which you haven’t been able to make any logical sense of or which has scared you?
JW: Frequently. But that’s perhaps something to do with me being a full-time writer and journalist. The weird and wonderful are as much part of the job as the writing.
As I mentioned before, I’ve always loved the philosophy of religion and the major role it plays in people’s lives. That’s not just those who follow organised beliefs, go to church every day for example. But the vast majority of society, across the planet, is built on some sort of fundamental belief system that can trace its origins back to one religion or another.
For me, that was important to represent in HellCorp. While Heaven is described to be like an endless golf course, Hell isn’t the usual fire and brimstone. It’s more like earth only infernally more frustrating. Whereas the golf course and country club motif is a little more relaxing, peaceful, something that you’d enjoy on a weekend. Not me, however, I despise golf! But there’s the rub – it’s open to interpretation.
As for scary and illogical moments, there have been a few I’ve come across. Unfortunately the scary times usually outweigh the illogical ones. Working as a journalist you get to see the good and bad side of society, up close and personal. There have been plenty of times where you leave your desk and go home that night wondering just how this planet keeps spinning with all the needless death, destruction and mayhem – all seemingly for terrible reasons or worse still, no reason at all.
Then again, you also come across people, places and things that just don’t make any sense – but in a good way. They bring joy to others, show that not everything is bad and are either hilarious, heart-warming or a little of both. I love being a journalist and I love being a writer. And I guess it’s just part of the jobs that you have to take the good with the bad.
LH: Would you share with your readers how you approach your writing? Do you have a set routine for your writing day, do you do everything on the computer, or do you do any drafting with pen and paper? How many drafts do you do before you are satisfied that your story is as good as it can be?
JW: I don’t really have a set routine for my writing – other than I like to do a bit of writing every day. This can be something as simple as jotting down an idea or a line of dialogue to hammering out a couple of thousand words.
For my first novel – Morbid Relations – I wrote the first draft in six weeks. It was a pretty intense time in my life and I was commuting for two hours every day to go to work. So I wrote in that time, day in, day out, for six weeks, making up any lost time at the weekends. The first draft was finished in six weeks with what became the final edit in a little over two months. Like I said, intense.
HellCorp and my writing since then hasn’t been anywhere nearly as pressurised as that. And I think it comes across in the type of book it is and the characters etc.
I like to write out a first draft first and then go back and do whatever edits are required. I always see the first draft as the skeleton of the book. You have to go back and put in the organs, muscle, clothes, wig etc. And then usually I’ll do whatever edits are necessary from my wonderful publisher Urbane. They’ve been so supportive in my writing and I’m always happy to take on their suggestions. They know their stuff.
Oddly, with The Man in the Dark – HellCorp’s sequel – I tried a completely new approach. While I wrote the first draft in about two months, what has become the final story is probably about 75% different to that original plan. It could be a little more, I’m not sure. I essentially wrote the book twice before I got to what will be hitting the shelves this September. My wife reads everything I write and she’s a wonderful muse, editor and above all else critic. And we both agreed that the original The Man in the Dark didn’t cut the infernal mustard. So I rolled up my sleeves and got on with it.
That’s what I always tell people who ask me about becoming writers – you can’t be lazy and you have to be up for hard work. As I’ve mentioned before, writing is a privilege, readers let you into their busy lives and you owe it to them and yourself to give them the very best story, characters etc. that you can. There’s no cutting corners and no short change. Urbane have always supported me in this and I think it’s paid off.
LH: I appreciated your references to literature and music in HellCorp. Do you listen to music whilst you are writing and, if you do, is there any particular music which helps (or hinders!) your creativity?
JW: I’m a big reader and a big music lover so I always like to sneak in a couple of little references in there for good measure. Thank you for noticing!
As a teenager I was bitten by the hard rock and heavy metal bugs. And I think I’m still a bit of an old rocker now. When it comes to listening while I write though my normal tastes are usually the LAST thing I have on. I’ll normally opt for something classical – which, over time, I’ve actually become a huge fan of. Instrumental is my go to as it means I don’t get distracted and start writing lyrics into dialogue. Although that did happen once during a draft of The Man in the Dark. You can imagine my surprise when I went back and had a read through only to find that one of the characters’ little monologue had some striking similarities with The Eagles’ Hotel California! Never again.
I’m hugely influenced by the writing and music that I read and listen to. I always love the stories behind songs, albums and works of art. I love the people that are involved in making these things, creating images, lyrics, stories that I’ve grown up with. It always fascinates me and I like to add in little nods to what I love into my own work. Only fair, I suppose, to thank those who have helped shape me into the writer I am.
I also love finding a reference in books and stories about popular culture, myth and legend. It always feels like you’ve discovered some great little pathway into the mind of the writer. Easter Eggs and all that.
LH: You dedicated HellCorp to Anne-Marie, your “soon to be wife”. How easy a person are you to live with when you are immersed in your writing … and are you now married to her?
JW: I’m delighted to say that yes we are happily married!
I think she’s probably the best person to ask when it comes to how easy I am when I’m writing. I’d say I’m a bloody nightmare – see the story about dinner earlier on. Apparently, and I’m sure she doesn’t mind me telling this publicly, I breathe differently when I’m writing. According to her it’s a more focused, steady, almost trance like breathing I do when I’m in full writing flow. I, of course, am completely oblivious to any and all change to my otherwise perfect demeanour (and if you believe that you’ll believe anything!).
Anne-Marie has always been such a wonderful supporter of my writing. She never shrinks away from me running ideas past her, big scenes, subplots, dialogue, everything. If it’s good she’ll tell me. Equally, if it’s garbage she doesn’t hold back. We have a wonderful relationship in that respect and I know that I wouldn’t be in the position I’m in today without her continued support and help.
She also has to live with me and The Devil and everything that goes along with that. So she’s definitely one in seven billion!
LH: When you aren’t writing, how do you like to spend your time?
JW: I don’t think I’m ever not writing! At least it feels that way sometimes! All in the best possible way of course.
As I said before I love to read, mostly fiction although I’ve recently been getting more and more into my non-fiction, with a particular focus on classical and modern history. I love cinema, am a huge sucker for great TV drama and comedy and I like to stay active with some running and football. Yes, I know, I’m one of those people who worships at the altar of overpaid, overpriced association soccer. But it’s been a part of my life for as long as I can remember. I’m an Everton supporter too – which for me still counts as “proper” football and not the big, shiny, global tourist brand.
As for my playing ability, that’s limited to once a week five-a-side with a bunch of great folk who, I reckon, wouldn’t normally know or be friends with each other if it wasn’t for that game. It’s a real unifying force in that respect. And at 33 you have to start looking for as many plus sides as you can when you’re legs aren’t as fast as they used to be.
I also have played for the Scotland Writers FC team – a collection of literary and media types who get together around once a month to play in charity and friendly games. A great cause and a great laugh, it’s really good fun too.
LH: If you were told you could no longer be a writer, is there an alternative job you’d like to do?
JW: Ghostbuster. Without a shadow of a doubt. A Ghostbuster.
Ever since I was a little boy, possible two or three, I remember being absolutely transfixed with the Ghostbusters. I loved the movies, I adored the cartoon series, and had all the action figures, comics, books, you name it.
In fact, I was in the car on a long journey with my wife the other week there and the famous theme tune came on an 80s radio station. I immediately said to Anne-Marie: “To this day, if I could, I’d be a Ghostbuster. I’d quit everything and become a Ghostbuster.”
And it’s true. Getting to ride about in Ecto-1, helping people rid themselves of spooks and spectres, yeah, absolutely. The ironic thing is, of course, that I’m a big scaredy-cat for all things supernatural, weird and otherwise unworldly. So I don’t know if I’d actually be very good at it. But I’d be keen as mustard!
LH: Although I haven’t (yet!) read it, I understand that your first novel was Morbid Relations. Would you like to tell us something about it?
JW: I’m hugely proud of Morbid Relations – it was my first break into the literary world. It’s a dark comedy about a comedian who returns home to his estranged family after the death of his mother. He has to deal with being an outsider, coming to terms with grief and ultimately learning how to grow up.
While it’s not really anything like HellCorp or the upcoming The Man in the Dark, it’s still something I really enjoyed writing. Literary fiction is very different to other types of writing and you have to really nail the characters and story. It was a really great learning curve for me, not just as a writer, but as somebody looking for a start in the literary world. And I’m still proud of it as a novel.
LH: Are there any particular authors who have influenced your writing and is there any book you wish you had written?
JW: Gosh, there are loads of great books I wish I had written. I can be a bit jealous like that. I adored Stephen Fry’s Making History. Before I read that I hadn’t ever actually been a very big fan of him. But since then I’ve devoured his work ferociously – most recently his classical mythology duology Mythos and Heroes. I remember reading Making History and thinking, half-way through, yeah, you’ve nailed this, this is something I would love to have had a shot at. And for me that’s the mark of a good book – it gets other writers thinking.
As for other authors, I’ve always been a fan of Chris Wooding’s Ketty Jay series – all action, all of the time. And I’m also a bit partial to Gareth L. Powell, Ben Aaronovitch and K.J. Howe. Kimberly very kindly offered a fantastic cover blurb for HellCorp and she’s so talented when it comes to seat-of-your-pants, page-turning action.
I’ve also just recently discovered Hanna Jameson whose The Last just blew me away. Highly recommend.
LH: Finally (and thank you for your patience!), when I finished HellCorp I felt bereft of the company of all your wonderful characters, so I’m delighted to know that there is to be a sequel. Are you able to share something of what we can expect from it? Also, are you working on any other projects?
JW: It’s been an absolute pleasure. And I’m so glad that I was able to cause you all kinds of consternation and grief with my writing! Again, in the best possible way of course!
As it always says in James Bond movies – The End but The Devil WILL return in The Man in the Dark (I’ve always wanted to do that).
Yes, he’s back, and this time he’s helping the police with a missing person case. A young woman has vanished and it’s up to The Devil to track her down. But while he’s on earth there’s trouble brewing in the Underworld. And two of Humanity’s greatest backstabbers – Brutus and Cassius – are sharpening their knives and have their greedy eyes firmly set on stealing his crown. It’s a race against time to find the girl, be the bad guy and maybe stop the apocalypse.
And yes, I’m always working on something. But as I said before – you’ll just have to watch this space. No spoilers from me!
Our thanks to Jonathan and Linda for this excellent Q&A.
HellCorp by Jonathan Whitelaw
Urbane Publications 9781911583721 pbk Jul 2018