Seamus Heffernan is not the first Newfoundlander whose background in journalism led him eventually to fiction. But finding his home in crime writing has been the culmination of a long-held dream.
“Some kids dream of wanting to be an astronaut, some kids dream of scoring a Stanley Cup overtime winning goal, but for me, I always wanted to be a writer,” he recalled, the day after the launch of his debut novel Napalm Hearts. “So I guess last night was my overtime winning moment.”
Throughout years of working for newspapers, magazines, and policy think-tanks, Heffernan yearned to write a serious piece of fiction.
“I knew if I did that it was going to be in the crime genre, it was always the one I was drawn to. That was the format I was most comfortable with and I thought you can have fun with it while also saying an awful lot.”
The story, he explains, involves an American private investigator who’s working in London and specializes in infidelity cases “…and wayward hearts. He’s a bit forward and a bit jaded, and he’s given a chance to find this girl who’s gone missing by a rich and powerful member of the British high society. He jumps at the chance and the necessary complications ensue.”
Like many novels in the crime and mystery genre, however, the plot is intricately threaded to an evocative sense of place, rooted firmly in Heffernan’s experience as a Newfoundland writer working abroad.
The power of place
Heffernan lived in London for five years, and his time there is reflected in the minutiae of everyday narrative in his book. From the patterns of rain pooling on the window of a cab, to the pub-fronted alleys of the labyrinthine city core, Heffernan channels a London as personal as it is picaresque. What the crime novel allows—and it’s the silent strength of the genre—is a merging of person and place, in the way only someone who has lived a place or experience can write.
“He’s a lonely guy,” says Heffernan of his protagonist. “You know my time in London, I was there for many years, but the last year I went through quite a lot myself, and I certainly know that sense of urban isolation. There’s no worse feeling in the world than feeling all alone in a city of seven and a half million people.”
“Setting is hugely important for wherever you’re trying to create the world that you’re building. My time in London had a real impact on me, because I’d always wanted, even as a little kid, to live in a major world city, and London is that. There’s a handful of cities in the world that can really call themselves world capitals, and it has so much history there. In my time there I soaked up so much of that, and I felt that my familiarity of place was strong enough that I could get away with putting my book there even though I started it when I was living in Newfoundland and I finished it when I was living in BC.”
Heffernan grew up in St. John’s, and while he acknowledges that “any writer is going to be influenced incredibly by where they grow up and the people where they grow up,” the city’s most profound influence on him came as a child.
“Growing up my parents really encouraged me to read, and my dad used to bring me to the old Afterwords bookshop in downtown St. John’s and let me spend my allowance on old pulp novels and Batman comics. I was always drawn to those stories. I was always drawn to the hardcore investigator type and I guess because of the impact it had on me at that impressionable age, it was something I was never going to shake, it was something I was never going to free myself from.”
Afterwords closed its doors on Duckworth Street earlier this year, something that makes him feel “a little sad, of course. It was such a huge part of my childhood and a huge part of so many people’s lives in Newfoundland. I spent a lot of time sitting on the floor there as a kid thumbing through the used comic books and the James Bond novels and the Matt Boland books. But it is unfortunately also an indicator of the times that we live in. The big stores are swallowing them up and obviously it’s getting harder and harder for a small indie like Afterwords to survive. Whatever that family is doing now I hope that they’re happy and successful. It’s a great loss to the city.”
The virtues of genre
While crime is a thriving genre of fiction, its writers often don’t receive the literary accolades that other authors do.
“I wouldn’t say it’s just crime, I would say it’s about any genre, whether it’s romance or horror or what have you,” reflects Heffernan. “I think when we say genre fiction people automatically think of throwaway books or what’s derisively called airport novels, and they’re kind of missing the fact that when you say you write in a genre, it just means that you respect the form and you respect the tropes and the models that have come before you. But you can still have a lot of fun with it and hopefully say something very real about the human condition, as any good fiction does.
“Ian Rankin puts out like a book every year, every year and a half, and people kind of turn their nose up at that because they think that if you can crank it out that fast, how can it be any good?”
Heffernan, naturally, disagrees, and argues the crime genre, like other genres, allows for a profound exploration of the human condition and the world in which we live.
“I think that it gives you a lot of freedom as an author. You can say an awful lot about good and evil, which of course is the benchmark of most fictional endeavors.”
From journalism to fiction
Heffernan isn’t the first author to make the jump from journalism to crime writing, and he credits his journalistic background with helping to shape his fiction.
“When I was a journalist I did a lot of feature writing, especially when I lived in the UK. With feature writing, even though it’s not fiction, you’re still trying to build a compelling narrative, you’re still trying to tell a cool story, with a satisfying conclusion for the reader.”
While earning a living through magazine writing in the UK, Heffernan took a script writing course.
“When I started writing my book a lot of those things that I took away from that class really translated well to the novel. How to build an effective scene, how to respect the structure, how to get to a surprising yet hopefully satisfying conclusion. I took that quite seriously, I didn’t want to go in and just kind of wing it, so I definitely put in the legwork beforehand before I sat down and started writing it. Let’s be honest, the last thing the world probably needs is another detective novel, so if you’re going to try to write one you might as well try your best going into it.”
His approach to writing was influenced by another creative passion of his: photography. Although he acknowledges the mediums are tremendously different, doing street photography has required him to build up the courage to approach potential subjects in a variety of random situations. It taught him a lesson: “fear can drive creativity.”
“When I was taking photographs quite a bit and going out in the street and meeting people and trying to get those Brisson-esque candid shots or street portraits, no matter how confident you are you’re always a little bit nervous that people are just going to ignore you or not want to participate. So that fear was always there. The fear of writing a book for me was that I knew it was something I always wanted to do, and I was afraid that if I didn’t, it was something that was going to be a major source of regret for a long time. So the motivation came from, is this something you’re just going to say that you’re going to do? Or is this something that you’ll put your money where your mouth is and dig in and see what happens.”
Writing a book is just the beginning
Heffernan’s shift to fiction has been a work in progress for many years. He recalls writing the first pages of his novel seven years ago. It was a Saturday morning, and he’d had a party at his house on Hamilton Avenue the night before. Stumbling down to his kitchen, an idea struck him, and he sat down to write.
He kept plugging away at it for the next several years, through career changes and an eventual move to British Columbia. There, after completing a Masters in Criminology, he had some short stories accepted for publication, and this gave him “the gas” to apply himself seriously to completing his novel. Upon completion, he sent it out to publishers himself, and it was quickly accepted by Crooked Cat, an independent publishing house based in France.
“Publishing is like any business, it can be tough and it’s especially tough to get your foot in the door if you don’t know anybody,” he reflects. “If you’re a new writer and you’re looking to get published, there’s a few ways to go about it. You can self-publish, you can get an agent—who will then help you flog your book to a couple of the bigger houses, they can get you meetings and get your submissions on tables that as an unrepresented writer you wouldn’t get a chance to—or you can target smaller independent houses who might not have the same reach as something like Penguin or Random House, but they’re interested in working with new writers and some of them are willing to take unsolicited manuscripts. So I did up a list and I just started mailing it out.”
While a growing number of authors are self-publishing these days, Heffernan said he appreciates the support that a publisher can provide to emerging writers.
“I didn’t know anything about publishing as a business, and it’s been a very steep learning curve. I foolishly thought, oh, I finished my book, so the work is over. When in fact the work is really just beginning. In retrospect I would probably still go the route that I did. The support that you get from a publisher, they connect you with the community of writers that they have in their house, and they can help take care of some of the stuff that you just don’t want to mess around with, like fussing about your cover art and worrying about trying to find an editor and that kind of thing.”
Heffernan didn’t originally intend to turn his book into a series, but he and his publishers are already discussing a possible sequel. He’s also working on a pilot television script, while continuing his day job as assistant to a federal Member of Parliament. And while he says he enjoys his day job, it’s clear that his passions are also firmly rooted in the creative world. His advice to other aspiring authors, he says, is to stop worrying about how to write, and just sit down and do it.
“Just do it. Honestly. It’s hard and it can be a bit grim when you realize that you’re putting all this time and energy into something that you may never get any credit for, let alone get a paycheque for, but if it’s something you want to do, just try to put one word in front of another. You don’t have to shoot for the moon, like if you try to do just a few pages a week, it adds up fast.
“Making time is tough. We’re very good at making excuses for ourselves and not doing the things we know we should be doing. You know, you have a day job and you have somebody in your life that you’re sharing it with, you have friends, you have other responsibilities. It’s hard carving out time for something like writing a book. But you know, you make time for all the things that are important in your life, so you just start including [writing]. This is important too, so I guess I have to start making time for it too.
“It’s kind of like going to the gym. If you go to the gym, you’re like ‘oh, this sucks, there’s so many other things I’d rather be doing.’ And if you sit down and write, there’s literally hundreds of other things that you could probably be doing that would be more enjoyable in the moment than that…a lot of people will talk about writing like ‘oh I’m waiting for the muse to strike’ or ‘oh I’m waiting to be thunderstruck with this moment of great insight’. The reality is you just got to sit down and put one word in front of the other. If you’re sitting around waiting for that magical moment to click, you’re going to be waiting a long time in that coffeeshop and not writing a damn thing.”