Interviewed by Alex Niro
William Deverell is a Dashiell Hammett Prize and Arthur Ellis award-winning crime author who has used half a lifetime of experience practicing criminal law and his dabbling in environmental activism – as well as politics – to create some of the most engrossing crime fiction there is. He is the author of the popular Arthur Beauchamp series and is lauded as the best-known crime writer in Canada. Bill’s bond with his characters and his life experience make for particularly satisfying reading. Bill has also created the long-running CBC TV series “Street Legal” and other screenplays, and holds an honorary D.Litt from Simon Fraser University.
Bill was gracious enough to answer some of my questions via email in between a busy schedule.
What was your experience starting out with novel writing? Were there any obstacles that you feel are noteworthy?
I had a full-on midlife crisis at 40, decided to take a leave from my criminal law practice and follow a dream long held. I disappeared from my Vancouver home into a not-quite-completed cottage on the Gulf Islands, battled several months of block (while my father, a cynical left-wing journalist whose own literary attempts ended in failure, was suffering his own battles with lung cancer), and finally decided to eschew efforts to write according to the strict canons of CanLit, and pounded out a thriller called Needles. My father’s tragic death that year, 1979, ironically freed me to write in a genre he often declaimed against. (But I know in my heart he would have been proud, for, ironically, Needles won a literary prize, the Seal First Novel Award, and $50,000.)
You worked as a reporter during your time at law school. If you had to choose one of the two, which was more important to you at the time, law or writing? Why?
At the time: law. But only for financial reasons. I had a young family and was not going to allow them to suffer the penury of living in some artist’s garret while I struggled to get published. But the greater dream was writing, and eventually it conquered all.
Do you think you would have been interested primarily in crime writing had you not become a lawyer?
I doubt it. My efforts would not have survived my dad’s frowning disapproval. But after a couple of decades of dealing with cops and crooks, sharp-tongued judges and preening, aggressive prosecutors, and hookers, dealers, porno producers, murderers and rapists (alleged or otherwise), I realized I had a deep mine of material, much of it still untapped. That, however, hasn’t stopped me from moving book-by-book to a more literary style—often laced with satire that has twice won me short-listings for the Leacock Prize.
Your time as a criminal lawyer has always influenced your style and content. Have there been any influences for your books that are outside of law, perhaps your environmentalism?
I wouldn’t say “always.” The Laughing Falcon is quite lawyerless if not lawless (though deeply invested in by my environmental or at least eco-neurotic psyche). Mecca, which is soon to be republished as an eBook, is a spy thriller. And definitely my concerns for the future of this planet are reflected in most of my later books, especially the Arthur Beauchamp series co-starring his partner, the leader of Canada’s Green Party (not to be confused with Elizabeth May, though she’s a friend and seems to enjoy the confusion). But another influence is at work: a playfulness with genres. Kill All the Lawyers is a whodunit sendup, Laughing Falcon bonds the thriller and romance genres, Kill all the Judges is a satire on the mystery novel, I’ll See You in My Dreams plays with memoir and biography.
Can you describe your process for writing one of your novels?
By the time I have reached the final few chapters of one novel, I am scribbling notes for another. I will spend weeks, maybe even months structuring it, with concepts, outlines, revisions and revisions, involving character, plot, settings, twists, before settling down to begin the dark-and-stormy-night phase of setting words to screen. I write in a cabin bereft of phone or Internet while on Pender Island, or a quiet room in my Costa Rica home (where I must suffer the intrusions of Internet but in consolation am 30 seconds away from a lap pool.)
You are well known for your Arthur Beauchamp series. What inspired you to make a series?
I was finally convinced by publishers and editors and (even more persuasively) by my fans to choose one of my characters and build on him. Time and again I was told that readers love to share the lives and the ups and downs of a sympathetic character. I chose one with deep flaws with which I could work, embellish, and demand that he struggle against: a classically educated, alcoholic, occasionally impotent, cuckolded, self-doubting but brilliant criminal lawyer who seeks to escape the law by retiring to a small island to grow vegetables, but keeps getting dragged back to the courtroom. Arthur first appeared, in a best supporting actor role, in The Dance of Shiva, and 15 years later in Trial of Passion, and several years later in April Fool, then, by popular demand, in all my succeeding novels. I am a prisoner of my fans, but my cell is a comfortable one.
One can’t help but notice the similarities between Beauchamp’s life and yours. Would you say that creating Beauchamp is your way of creating an alternate version of you with a slightly different life, trying to see how it would be in a different situation?
We share life on laid-back West Coast islands, we both arrived there seeking life changes, and have both grown to love living in wooded, rural spaces that are shared by interesting characters. Arthur gets into my head, and I into his. I sometimes think he’s a worthier man than I, despite his many issues. He would be my best friend were he real (and were he able to abide me).
What advice could you give to lawyers-turned-novelists (and crime novelists in general) starting out today?
Alex Niro is a fourth year BA undergraduate at UBC. He is a non-fiction and fiction writer, but an automotive journalist at heart. His work on automotive culture and lifestyle can be found here. A native of Montréal, Québec, he now lives in North Vancouver, B.C.