Bought up by an alcoholic father who was basically shit as any sort of father figure, he grows up with an obsession with his friend Andrew. It manifests in an adoption fantasy that many children develop, the grass is always greener they say and in this case it is …until many years later. It’s a tale of miscarried justice, the laws of ‘an eye for an eye’, like an old spaghetti Western but without a hero, or maybe one with a fatal Byronic flaw.
The real hero in this is of course the dog, Reynard or Ray, untainted and faithful. But the skill of this book is that you feel sympathy for Nick who does unspeakable things, an anti hero, nobody is saved, the ending is questioningly ‘happily ever bitterness’ yet the fragility of the protagonist Nick Smith, even his name is boring, is engaging and the build up to his ultimate goal, without giving too much away, is staggeringly manipulative, unforgiving and bitter, yet sympathetic when you see the back story of betrayals.
The obsessive love interest for Nick in this novel is Andrew and a need for a family and security; the magazine life. The weapon is Liv, a girl, isn’t it always. Followed by money. Followed by humiliation and a rewriting of history. Traditionally, women are seen as the ones to have the intense and embittered jealous relationships whereas men just nod and drink and get over everything quickly. Café Assassin does the complexities of male friendship a justice and demonstrates the old adage ‘Hell hath no fury like a woman spurned’ as just as applicable to men.
It also reveals the complexities of entrapment, of being imprisoned or creating your own prison, the need for an open door and then wanting to keep it locked. It feels like nobody in this story is actually liberated, just moves on to another locked cell, whether it’s domesticity, career, untruths, guilt, lust, what might have been, putting right a wrong or an entrapment with rewriting a lost history, nobody in this story escapes. I love that it ends with all the superficial achievement of embittered happiness, yet the damage is still lurking beneath the surface. Below is my interview with Michael Stewart.
Café Assassin is an intense novel about betrayal, neglect and jealousy. You have two characters, the maligned and the blessed in Nick and Andrew. Is this drawn from personal experience in part, if not, what inspired you to write about what seems a two sided coin perspective on male friendship? Is it in part auto biographical? Or are you just an expert on walking in other people’s shoes and getting into minds. Of course however you answer, you will be either Andrew or Nick and most probably both.
I’m really not sure where the book came from. I have a friend, who I’ve not seen for a while, also called Nick. At the time the story was forming in my head, I was seeing quite a bit of him. At that time he was seething with pathological anger and the energy of his hate had a kind of purity that I found attractive on one level and I started to think about writing about a character whose primary motivation was hate. It all came out of that, I think.
Keyop. Can you explain the intensity of that relationship, and without giving too much away, the end result of that? Was it quite simply a need for Nick to replace Andrew or more complicated than that? The chain of events as a result of that ‘friendship’ has dire machinations in the latter half of the novel.
My mum phoned me the other day to settle an argument. She’d been arguing with my dad. He said that Nick and Keyop had a physical relationship but my mum insisted that it was purely platonic. I refused to clarify where I stood – I think that’s for the reader to interpret. Of course this infuriated her even more. I think on one level, Keyop does act as a substitute Andrew. On another level, he is any port in a storm. Nick doesn’t handle prison well. Keyop appears to be tougher than Nick – although this is a veneer. Nick’s wounds take a long time to heal. He doesn’t seem to have the necessary amount of proteins in his blood.
I took it as a physical relationship…but not until much later in the book.
Liv. Do you think or did you want to portray Nick as really loving her? I wasn’t convinced, there were hints she was just an instrument of his embittered plot to destroy Andrew despite some scenes of highly charged sexual tension, long hugs, lingering looks, it did feel quite teenage and as though they had both got stuck in nostalgia. Broken up with anger at her not visiting him inside, “the fucking bitch”.
This changed a lot in the re-writing. In early drafts of the story, I tried to show Nick as more ‘human’ but it just didn’t work. I think Nick wants to treat Liv as an instrument of his vengeance, but underneath he has feelings for her. I think he is in denial about those feelings. To allow them to surface might weaken his strategy. Of course, there is unfinished business there. Nick is still eighteen in his head. He hasn’t had a relationship with a woman for twenty-two years. If I was his therapist, I would tell him to ‘move on’. But that’s the one thing he just can’t do.
Her character is kind of one dimensional for me, she doesn’t grow. We know she’s beautiful, bright, likes The Cramps, has two kids, resents her husband…but we never really get into her head. At the revelation of the original crime, she goes quiet. I think the ending confirms her as just a plot support, (not quite as a vacuous as a manic pixie dream girl) but nevertheless, we don’t see much in the narrative that hints at her POV outside of these two men. She’s vital to the story, as the prize and the punishment. She never seemed freed . Yet at the same time, I like that nobody escapes their prisons. Thoughts?
I guess that is one of the flaws of first person viewpoint. We never leave Nick’s head. I suppose it is also the power of that viewpoint too. We are seeing Liv through Nick’s myopic vision. I don’t agree that she is one dimensional though. There are plenty of paradoxes. And she does change. When they first meet she is suspicious of Nick and very cynical about his proposed business ventures. You say she is ‘beautiful’ but that’s just Nick’s opinion. It doesn’t mean anything. For what it is worth, I think Nick is wrong about lots of things. He has a very twisted view of the world and of humans.
Yes good point. It is a flaw and strength of the first person viewpoint. I wanted to know about Steve too and that indicates good storytelling that even the extras are curious characters. I think Liv started to change in her role opening the club but there’s a sense later in the book that she remains a puppet. I can’t be specific without spoiling so read it people.
The adoption fantasy for children. Did you have one growing up in
Obviously Nick’s childhood is fraught with abandonment that carries on into his
adult life even within prison walls…but the adoption fantasy is a thing that
children of all walks of life have.
Like lots of kids, I dreamed of escape. I didn’t really like being a child. I fantasised about being an adult. Now I spend a lot of my time wishing I could be a child again.
Yes. As children we crave freedom and think adults have it, then as adults we reminisce and think children have it.
Café Assassin sounds like super cool venture. Art décor, music and poetry, membership only, safety in numbers. Is that something you’ve wanted to do, or just want to in your local town, or is it based on a real place you frequented in the past or present?
It is based on a real venture I was involved with in the early nineties. A friend and I rented some premises on
Oldham Street in Manchester. My friend went to prison and
before the cafe/club opened I was approached by some dark characters who
threatened me and wanted money off me. There were a lot of shootings at that
time in Manchester.
The Hacienda was riddled with gun toting gangsters. I bottled it and never
Sounds very intimidating. And what a shame, though you may not have written your books if it had worked out.
I never quite got the strange noise the parka crazy ‘Madman Marz’ made, the ‘Keek brrrmf’. I guess he symbolised the bogey man or the scratching of the monster in your closet or under your bed. But what is that noise?
Again, this is based on real life. That camping story is lifted from my childhood. Madman Marz was a real crazy character we used to see regularly. He terrified us. That’s the noise he made – or the closest I could render phonetically.
Would you consider writing a follow up to Café Assassin? There’s plenty there to work with. Nick and Liv’s life after, Andrew’s imprisonment, what happens to Steve, I shouldn’t care but you managed to make him kind of weirdly likeable too? Bring back Ramona just to stir stuff up a bit? We didn’t really get much on Andrew’s motives other than guess work from Nick. I’m grabbing at the obvious, this is your story.
I don’t know about that. I got asked this a lot about King Crow. For me the story ends where it ends. I like to think that the story goes on though in the mind of the reader. In an earlier draft Ramona was a prominent character. There was a love story between Nick and Ramona, but it humanised him too much and it had to go. I was very fond of Ramona, and sad to see her leave. Maybe I’ll go back to her and write something for her.
I’m not sure I can ask much more on the book without this being spoiler central so…writing. This took four years to write? Was it started after King Crow? I start stories at the same time (and sadly finish few), it feels to me that Café Assassin is more a debut novel than King Crow, being a little more accessible, the themes universal everyone has intense friendships, experience of jealousy and betrayal on some level. King Crow felt a little more niche, I could imagine some picking it up and a getting a bit ‘birds, birds and more birds’ with it. I didn’t, it actually gave me a greater appreciation for them. So tell us about the jump/transition of debut novel to second novel.
I’d written a novel in the nineties that wasn’t very good. It got skipped. There were three more attempts to write novels. They all got skipped too. Or burned. I can’t remember. I thought I’d given up attempting to write novels, once the scriptwriting took off, but I was wrong. King Crow started off as a script idea but mutated into a novel. Café Assassin was always a novel. It took me four months to write and four years to re-write. That was just me trying to get it right. Or just less shit. I had some major problems with the story that were tricky to resolve.
Any plans for more poetry? I loved Couples. It was a collection of observations of quite dysfunctional relationships. What other tricks have you up your sleeve to surprise your readers with?
I write poetry all the time, and love poetry, but I’m very bad at it. For every ten poems I write, one might have something in it that I can develop, the rest are execrable. I’d love to do another poetry book, but Couples took me ten years – embarrassingly – so god knows. I’ve got a short fiction collection out in November called Mr Jolly. I’ve also finished a first draft of a new novel. I’m also hoping to secure another commission for Radio 4 – I love writing radio plays.
Mr Jolly? That’s a great title. So it’s all busy busy.
Any tips for keeping focus on writing? And that battle of promoting your writing balanced with social media bollocks. Do you give yourself rules about how much you promote and how personal it gets? I’ve noticed you seem to say something controversial then appear to put your feet up and put the kettle on while everyone has a scrap.
Walking. And reading. Those are the two anchors for me. I read for an hour or two every day. I walk for two hours every day. A lot of my writing I do when I’m walking. Computers are terrible for me. I’m so easily distracted. Facebook, and all that. I’m a complete addict. I’ve gone back to the pencil. I’ve got a shed in the garden. I’m thinking about getting a manual typewriter like the one I started on back in 1992 when I wrote my first novel. I’m worried about running out of ribbons though, they are hard to get hold of now.
Both of your novels have been from a male POV. Would you consider writing from a woman’s or child’s? Or writing in different forms, e.g. letters, diary ect? I know in a subtle sense Café Assassin is a letter to Andrew. I sense a fascination with prisons that could work well with. A prisoner’s wife or child. You’ve done the prisoner.
My new book is told from the POV of Joanne. She’s a dog. A Manchester terrier. She’s a lesbian (people will think I am making this up, but I’m not). The book after that, if I have the balls to write it, is also from a female perspective. I’ve written quite a lot from a female POV. Quite a few stories in my new book are from a female perspective. A lot of the stories I have pitched to the BBC have been from a female POV, but they never get commissioned. I really like writing women. The future is female.
Any plans for a book trailer for Café Assassin? I think it would work well with the jumping back and forth from 1989 to 2011, just for the fashion and music alone.
The trailer for King Crow was my publisher’s idea. It was fun to do. I don’t think they have any plans to do one for Café Assassin. Would love it if they did though.
Can we have a teaser for your next novel please?
It’s about dogs.
Great. I look forward to hearing Joanne the terrier's story. Best of luck with Mr Jolly, your new novel and of course the Radio 4 commission.
Café Assassin is out now. Buy it here, it’s good..and while you're at it, get King Crow and Couples too.