The Five By Five Interview with DV Bishop
“Five By Five?” Um, well… I wanted a name for this (hopefully regular) feature, and as well as being a big crime fiction fan I am also a big Buffy The Vampire Slayer fan, with a soft spot for “rogue slayer” Faith, who uses the phrase constantly – though she never explains what it means, it’s an expression used in telecoms/military coms to confirm a signal is being received clearly, so hopefully this means we’ll get a clearer picture of our interviewees!
I first met DV Bishop at a launch event for one of James Oswald’s Tony McLean books a few years ago, and we spent some time talking not about crime fiction but about comics as we discovered that while he was editing 2000AD, I was just discovering the comic and the joys of a weekly dose of stories of all kinds, handily packaged together (remember: comics is a medium, not a genre!). We’ve met a couple of times since, and I’ve heard many great things about his Renaissance Florence-set novels, though shamefully City Of Vengeance remains on the TBR stack – I hope to get to it soon, so watch out for a review. Meanwhile, if you’re wondering how he got from comics to crime novels, read on…
DV Bishop is the author of the Cesare Aldo mysteries set in Renaissance Florence, published by Pan Macmillan. An award-winning screenwriter and TV dramatist, he was awarded a Robert Louis Stevenson Fellowship by the Scottish Book Trust in 2017 while writing the first Cesare Aldo novel, City Of Vengeance, set in Renaissance Florence. He then won the Pitch Perfect competition at the 2018 Bloody Scotland crime fiction festival. He was shortlisted for the 2021 Wilbur Smith Adventure Writing Prize, and won the 2022 NZ Booklovers Award for Best Adult Novel. His novels have also been longlisted for the CWA Gold Dagger, CWA Historical Dagger and New Zealand’s Ngaio Marsh Award for Best Novel. Find his website here: https://dvbishop.com/ Find him on Twitter here: @davidbishop
First, the sensible questions…
Q1 Tell us a bit about your journey to publication and how you got to where you are now. Why crime fiction rather than another genre?
I’ve written a lot of genres and in different storytelling media: TV dramas and radio plays for the BBC, 20 published tie-in novels, plus comics and computer games, audio dramas – the list goes on. I’ve created new stories for characters including Doctor Who, Judge Dredd and Freddy Krueger, and written historical fiction, fantasy, horror, war stories and science fiction. No matter what I’ve been doing, an element of crime or mystery always gets into my stories, usually as the narrative engine. Even when I was writing for the BBC medical drama series Doctors, there was always a puzzle to solved. Finally, in 2016, I decided it was time to write an actual crime novel, rather than hiding my true storytelling passion within other genres.
In 2017 I started a part-time PhD in creative writing at Lancaster University. Later that year I was awarded a Robert Louis Stevenson Fellowship by the Scottish Book Trust, which sent me to a creative retreat south of Paris to write for a month. There I drafted the first 20,000 words of my first historical thriller set in Renaissance Florence, City Of Vengeance.
In September 2018 I won Pitch Perfect at the Bloody Scotland crime writing festival in Stirling. This gave me a boost of confidence to finish my first draft. In early 2019 my friend and gimlet-eyed editor Sam Boyce gave the novel a rigorous read, meaning more drafts. Then it was time to query agents (I’d only had an agent for my screenwriting before). I was methodical about that process, building a spreadsheet of my Top 20 choices and their preferences. I made sure my submission package exactly matched what each different agent required and honed my opening 50 pages until they shone. The first request from an agent for the full manuscript came in less than 24 hours, which was a head-spinning moment.
Jenny Brown opened her list just as I was started querying and soon offered to represent me. The novel went out on submission in April 2019, which proved nerve-racking. But three publishers made offers and we accepted a two-book contract from Alex Saunders at Pan Macmillan for City Of Vengeance, published in 2021, and its 2022 follow-up, The Darkest Sin.
Q2 What was it like sitting down and writing your first novel, and what is it like now – easier, harder, just different?
I wrote my first novel so long ago (1993!) it was on an electric typewriter – I couldn’t afford a personal computer. I got up at five each morning to write a licensed tie-in novel called Judge Dredd: The Savage Amusement for Virgin Books before going to my day job. It took ten weeks to write 75,000 words. I borrowed the labours of Hercules as my structure and added a lot of blind panic. Virgin asked for another novel, and I was a published author.
These days I still get those long, dark tea-times of the soul where self-doubt looms its ugly head, but experience means I can foresee the peaks and dips of the writing roller-coaster. Knowing you’ve done something challenging before is helpful, but two harsh truths always remain: you always want your next book to be better than your last, and you only know how to write a new book once you’ve completed a draft. Each new novel is starting a new job.
Q3 You spent a lot of years working in comics before writing your own novels, what impact do you think that had on your writing?
I still write comics off and on, it’s been part of what might now be rather grandly called my portfolio career for 32 years. As a storytelling medium, comics teaches you to focus on three things: character, clarity and concision. You need to make readers care about a character in a page or two. You have to communicate the story to your creative collaborators (artist, editor, etc) with as much clarity as possible. And you need to pack as much as you can into the fewest number of pages. A comics writers can dash off the script for eight pages of story in a few hours, but those eight pages could take an artist the next month of their life to draw. If you can tell the same story in fewer pages, it means the comic will be finished a lot sooner.
Comics is absolutely a visual storytelling medium. In some ways it is the third point of a triangle, with prose fiction and screenwriting at the other ends. Comics can draw strengths from both media – the visual externalisation of a character’s internal conflicts from screen, while also potentially giving readers access to the thoughts and feelings of characters. I see my novels as films or comics in my head and aim to communicate that on the page. But I also know the importance of engaging a reader’s other senses to help immerse them in a scene, a location. Smells are particularly evocative for that, and not something that gets mentioned much in comics – not unless they are scratch ‘n’ sniff stories!
Q4 What’s your favourite part about being a writer?
I’ve two answers for that question – the introvert answer, and the extrovert answer. In terms of actual writing, I love the moments when the impossible puzzle of a story suddenly clicks together. Those flashes of inspiration, the leaps of imagination that take misfiring narrative into new possibilities are joyous. Rare, but joyous. Most of my best ideas seem to occur in the bath, so I should be having way more baths.
The extrovert answer is meeting readers. City Of Vengeance was launched in the depths of lockdown during February 2021, and I didn’t get much chance for most of that year to talk with people about the book and the characters. Some lovely readers and booksellers and librarians reached out to me about the novel, and I appreciated that so much. As we’ve emerged from lockdowns and restrictions this year, I’ve done as many events as I possible could to talk with people about City Of Vengeance and The Darkest Sin. Honestly, I will go to the opening of an envelope if it gives me a chance to talk with readers and librarians and booksellers about Cesare Aldo and Strocchi and #Sauldo and Renaissance Florence! If anybody wants to invite me to a festival, I’ll be there.
Q5 What’s next for you, in terms of writing?
I’ve just handed in a draft of the third Cesare Aldo novel – Ritual Of Fire, due out in June 2023 – so I am waiting to hear what my editor Alex thinks of it. This one is a standalone, but also pays off a lot of threads and character moments I set up in the first two books. I think it might be the best yet, but we’ll see what others have to say about that… I’m already doing research for book 4, which is planned for publication in 2024. After that I’ll be out of contract, so it might be time for a non-Aldo book. But I also have plans for him beyond book 4 so we’ll see.
Now for the quick-fire round…
Q1 Who are your favourite characters in crime fiction?
I love Sam Wyndham and Surendranath Banerjee from Abir Mukherjee’s novels, the way they’ve developed during the series. And Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple for demonstrating that a great detective is about perception and patience, not muscle and masculinity.
Q2 What book have you reread the most?
I don’t re-read much, there are so many new books. But I have read The Collector Collector by Tibor Fischer several times, which features quite a lot of crime – especially for a novel narrated by a sentient piece of ceramic that is thousands of years old. Best of all, it’s funny.
Q3 What’s your favourite method of killing off characters?
Give me a good stabbing, up close and personal! City Of Vengeance is a very stabby book. It opens with this sentence: “Cesare Aldo took no pleasure in killing, but sometimes it was necessary.” That sums up the series rather well. For the time and place where my stories are set, blades are probably the most common method for murder. Having said that, variety is the spice of taking life. The Darkest Sin is a locked room mystery set in a convent and thus a lot less violent. The next Cesare Aldo novel, Ritual Of Fire, features people being burned alive.
Q4 What is your most over-used phrase, in life or in writing?
It is what it is.
Q5 Do you use a bookmark or do you fold down the page corner?
I am the worst kind of person to let near books. I turn down corners, bend spines till they snap, have been known to drop books in the bath. If I want to keep a book pristine, I will buy two copies – one for reading, and another for the shelf.
Thanks for a brilliant interview David, it’s been a treat hearing about your writing – and I love that you buy two copies of books that deserve to be kept pristine! Being a comics reader from way back I’ve always liked seeing its writers move into long-form fiction as I think it adds something different to the mix (and a venture into comics by a novelist is always interesting, such as Denise Mina’s stint on the Hellblazer series, which also I feel has changed her crime writing since). I think a trip to Renaissance Florence is definitely on the cards very soon, as it’s a time and place I know nothing about but sounds fascinating – and sharing a surname with the creator of a famous knife (the Fairbairn-Sykes fighting knife) does draw me towards stabby books 😀
DV Bishop’s latest book is The Darkest Sin: Florence. Spring, 1537. When Cesare Aldo investigates a report of intruders at a convent in the Renaissance city’s northern quarter, he enters a community divided by bitter rivalries and harbouring dark secrets. His case becomes far more complicated when a man’s body is found deep inside the convent, stabbed more than two dozen times. Unthinkable as it seems, all the evidence suggests one of the nuns must be the killer. Meanwhile, Constable Carlo Strocchi finds human remains pulled from the Arno that belong to an officer of the law missing since winter. The dead man had many enemies, but who would dare kill an official of the city’s most feared criminal court? As Aldo and Strocchi close in on the truth, identifying the killers will prove more treacherous than either of them could ever have imagined . . .
DV Bishop will be appearing at Bloody Scotland on Saturday 17 September alongside Anna Mazzola and Douglas Skelton on a panel entitled Dangerous Times. If you can’t make it in person, the panel is part of the festival’s digital offering so you can watch online from home (you can buy individual panel online tickets or a pass to watch more than 40 events from the festival). For more information and tickets, visit www.bloodyscotland.com
He is taking part in the one-day Bay Tales Live festival in Whitley Bay, near Newcastle-upon-Tyne, on 4 March, 2023. Find out more and book tickets at baytales.com/baytaleslive2023/