Alex Davies talks to a personal hero and a contemporary literary inspiration in the amazing Danny King, responsible for works like Wild Bill and Thieves Like Us.
With a clear passion for horror films and character-driven comedies, it is little wonder that his dry wit and working class humour has obtained the success that it has. In some cases it is more a wonder that it hasn’t been more widely received. The modesty of the man is seemingly endless, singing off each message with no pomp nor circumstance, only Danny.
The talent, however, is definitely enviable. Out of the few types of authors out there, Danny is character driven. His books primarily explore the change in the characters as the story progresses, and the relationships between them. In this kind of author the plot can become almost lost, the main story line unfathomable. Not with Danny though, the perfect balance of person and point.
Danny King’s early under-the-carpet years, in his own words.
I was born on a big council estate in Slough in 1969 (just around the corner from the Mars Bar factory) therefore I think it’s fairly safe to say I was always destined for greatness.
I liked Slough. Have happy memories of the estate and had lots of mates, but the thing I loved best of all were horror films. There used to be a double bill of horror on BBC2 on Saturday night in the 1970s featuring the likes of Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi, Lon Chaney jr, Christopher Lee and of course Peter Cushing. I had books on horror films and always wanted to be a horror actor and play Dracula, but I guess few Draculas come from Slough.
Unfortunately, in 1979 my family moved to a little town in Hampshire called Yateley. I didn’t like Yateley as much as Slough. It was prettier, leafier and quieter but I never really felt I fitted in. I guess this is the same for a lot of kids though. Teenage years are difficult, particularly for wannabe film stars.
My acting ambitions morphed into writing ambitions somewhere along the line. Not sure how. I guess maybe in my mind I thought if I were the writer I could give myself the part of Dracula (which just goes to show what I knew about the film industry). I started writing silly stories at school instead of working and my mates’ laughter only encouraged me more, although looking back these stories were hideously offensive teenage drivel of the highest order and will never see the light of day again, not least of all ‘Willy Wanker’s Trip to the Seaside’.
My parents never supported my ambitions and drummed into me the need to get a “proper job”. So I got a bit disillusioned and stopped doing any school work and started mucking about, which led to me leaving school at 16 with no qualifications.
My first job was stacking pet food in a supermarket, then my dad took me onto the building sites to learn bricklaying. This soon became hod carrying and I spent the next seven years working on half a dozen building sites around Reading and Southampton, occasionally with my dad but more often without.
I still harboured ambitions of writing and getting into films somehow but I didn’t know how. I used to daydream a lot and still wrote at the weekends but I was 100% ambition over talent. I simply wasn’t very good.
I went off the rails again and ended up getting arrested a few times in my late teens/early 20s for car theft and burglary, which is I guess where I hit bottom. I figured I needed to get away just to get myself out of my rut so I saved up some money and travelled around the US on the Amtrak. Then I met a girl and ended up living with her for a bit. She was a student at Tulane University, New Orleans, so I hung around the campus a bit and couldn’t get over the fact that these students were no brighter than me. In fact some were downright dumb. I’d never considered university or college before because… I was from a council estate. Kids like me didn’t go to university. At least not in the 70s and 80s. But when I got home I enrolled in an Access course and discovered brains and more importantly a work ethic I never knew I had.
I wanted to get into journalism, because I figured journalism was closer to writing than hod carrying, so I applied to a journalism college (The London College of Printing) and got it. I had the best year of my life there, made some good friends that I still have and graduated with a merit.
But it’s hard getting a job from college as students these days are finding out. But after six months of applying I finally got one on the magazine Model Railway Enthusiast. Don’t laugh. It was either that or hod carrying again.
I ended up in an altogether different rut but at least I was writing and each day I’d improve little by little. I wrote my first book (The Executioners) which I spent years trying to get published with no success. Then I had an idea to write a book based on my criminal experiences and wrote The Burglar Diaries. But it wasn’t so much the idea that worked with that book. I found my writing style and managed to find a publisher too (after obviously 50+ rejections).
I’ve tried to build on that success but as with most things in life it’s two steps forwards one (or sometimes three) steps backwards. I’ve had some successes but many more failures and I expect this to go on for the rest of my ‘career’ but I won’t give up. Actually I might give up. Some times you need to know when you’re beaten. But I won’t give up today. That’s all I really know.
Q&A with Danny King
Firstly I want to say a big thank you for the time you have taken to talk to me. You’re a very busy man, as much becomes apparent when speaking to you… but I have to ask, is there anything that you’re working on at the moment. Anything in the pipeline, from film to the written word?
I’ve spent the last couple of years writing spec screenplays. I’ve written over a dozen since Wild Bill but writing them is the easy part. Finding producers who’ll buy or produce them is the hard part. Contacts are everything. I send my scripts out but most of the time I don’t hear anything. Occasionally I’ll meet a producer who’s looking for the sort of project I’ve written and we’ll start reworking and developing it together, but most of the time I’m knocking on doors like a down-at-heel carpet salesman with a suitcase full of samples. It would be enough to drive a man to drink – or rather drink more.
Let’s go back to the beginning, you were slightly muted in your biography about exactly how your early years got so far off track? Family, friends… Thatcher’s broken Britain; at a pinch, who or what would you blame?
Never blame anyone else for the things you’ve done. There are always reasons and mitigating circumstances but ultimately the fault’s all mine and I’m big and ugly enough to hold up my hands to it (okay mine and Thatcher’s then). The last time I was arrested the arresting officer asked me if I had anything to say for myself. I said “it’s a fair cop, guv”. He looked at me in confusion and asked me if I was serious. He’d just caught me in a house holding someone else’s telly. What did he want me to say? Still, he was made up by it and told me in 20 years no one had ever made that statement to him so at least some good came out of it.
When you were convicted for burglary, what went through your head?
If you could take your actions back, undo the crimes and consequences, but subsequently lose the inspiration you took from that part of your life, would you?
Tricky question. What else are you offering?
Are you sorry for your past, even if it did help shape your future?
Of course. I’m all grown up now and have acquired a conscience from somewhere that does tend to get in the way of my fun occasionally. But you can’t spend life beating yourself up for your past mistakes. There are plenty of people around who are only too willing to do that for you already. Life moves forward. If we don’t too then we’re already dead.
What was the most enjoyable job you had when you were younger, seeing as you have worked everywhere from building sites to a lad’s magazine?
I don’t know. They all kind of sucked in their own way. I’ve had some great days on building sites and some great days in offices but by and large these are isolated days. I liked the banter on building sites. There’s a lot more honesty and brutality there than working in an office. You can really let go and have a laugh. On one site the subby used to bring in an air rifle and (just for a laugh) take pot shots at us while we were working. It bleeding hurts when you’re shot with an air rifle too. But soon all the brickies and hoddies were bringing them in and the first shot would be let loose and everyone would grab their guns and run around the site shooting at each other. Bit dangerous really but lots of fun when you’re a thicky 19-year-old hoddy.
What is your all time favourite project, past or present, to have worked on?
It’s usually whatever I’m currently working on. I spotted this years ago. I love whatever’s in front of me and plough all my energies into it. At the moment that happens to be an Irish zombie film that could turn out to be a lot of fun, but I’m very proud of all my books, Wild Bill and even Thieves Like Us. Never ask a father to choose between his children.
Have there been any one liners you have written that you take particular pride over?
There’s one early on in my first book, The Burglar Diaries, that I have a particular fondness for. It’s the one about Richard Todd and never leaving a man behind (I won’t quote it because it won’t do it justice taking it out of context). Finding that line was my eureka moment and unlocked my voice for every book to come. There are some lines I like in Wild Bill too and seeing your words spoken by famous actors can give you goosebumps all over.
Where did the razor-sharp wit and unique perspective on life of your first big character, Bex – of the Burglar Diaries, come from?
I don’t know. Me I guess. It’s not all my honest opinion but I try to get into a mindset and filter out anything that doesn’t fit in with that mindset. For example Ian Bridges (in The Hitman Diaries) is my darkest angriest side. He’s the little voice inside my head who urges me to shoot someone when they fail to thank me for holding open the door for them. Of course I wouldn’t (well, maybe when I was 19) but it’s useful stuff to tap into when trying to draw a character.
How much of the books you write is you, or other people you know well? – and how much is contrived hyperbole?
Part and part. I’m not sure where I end and Bex begins to be honest. Being a writer is a great thing because you can dress up some of your dodgiest opinions and pass them off as fiction if they’re truly offenseive. And there are some characters in my books who are 100% genuine. George in The Hitman Diaries is completely on someone I knew. So are several people in The Burglar Diaries, The Pornographer Diaries, Milo’s Marauders, Blue Collar and so on. If you know or get to meet a lot of oddballs and you’re a writer you’d be mad to waste a resource like that. Of course not everyone merits this sort of treatment but I delve as much into my memory as I do my imagination when writing.
Are there any shows, books, or films that you study in great detail, picking flaws with other writers’ techniques to avoid in your own work? – and the inverse?
I wouldn’t say study. I am a fan of certain shows, films and books. The Carry On movies (or at least half of them anyway) I loved. Red Dwarf, Porridge, Auf Wiedersehen, Pet, the Flashman books, Alien and so on. I could do you a list a mile long and they’ve all had an effect on me. But I guess mostly they’ve just fuelled my enthusiasm. I’ve had to find my style myself and that really only comes with practice. Find your voice. Once you do you’ll be a writer for the rest of your life.
How much creative control did you have over the television show, film, and countless books?
Books – 100%. Television and film less so. Maybe 60-70%. Hard to judge. Television and film is a collaborative process and the writer is not the top of the tree. More importantly the film can’t go forwards until the producer and director are happy with the script and they are rarely blown away by a first draft. So there are notes. Lots of them. It’s up to the writer to take on board this feedback and try to deliver the best script he/she can. If you can’t rewrite (which can often involve cutting your favourite lines/scenes/characters) then you’ve got no chance of making it as a writer. As William Faulkner said, “In writing, you have to kill your babies”. Who am I to argue with the Captain of the Starship Enterprise?
How did you deal with that?
Are there any websites, books, courses, or seminars, that have helped you with your writing? (If so what?)
Here are some books I’ve read that have helped:
On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft – Stephen King
Save The Cat – Blake Snyder
Adventures in The Screen Trade – William Goldman
Which Lie Did I Tell – William Goldman
Conversations With My Agent – Rob Long
I tried reading Story by Robert McKee but couldn’t make head nor tail of it. Lots of people swear by it but I am still essentially a hod carrier at heart so I gave up after 100 pages.
What would you say to somebody trying to break into any field of writing, is there a point where you would say to give up and move onto a new writing-unrelated project, or is persistence really the key?
There is no key. That is the key. You could spend your life trying and never make it. No one has a divine right and plenty of writers go to the grave with unfulfilled ambitions. Work and practice will help but luck and contacts will get you further. The publishing world is full of the same sort of people (authors, publishers, agents, book sellers etc) and if your face doesn’t fit you’ve got your work cut out no matter what you write. It all comes down to determination and self-belief. I always told myself there was a very good chance I’d never see my books published but I was prepared to spend (and possibly waste) my life trying. If you feel the same then good luck to you but you better get used to buying dented tins in the supermarket and not going on holiday.
What is more important to you? – grammar, or the flow and feel of the story?
Story story story. Actually no, scrub that. It’s style. Some of my stories aren’t particularly original but as Frank Carson used to say, “it’s the way I tell ’em”.
Should you be afraid of breaking the rules/will publishers punish you with rejection for doing so?
Never be afraid. You need to do something to stand out from the crowd because learning to write detective fiction that starts “It was a dark and stormy night” is going to get you nowhere, no matter how proficient it is. Of course all the big publishers and agents fear originality. But then again they fear everything except celebrity cook books at the moment so what have you got to lose except a large chunk of your free time writing your weird stupid book?
What would you say to your children if they one day followed the same early lifestyle that you did, would it be the same as anything you were told when you were younger?
I have no idea. You can’t plan for every eventuality. My kids might take me by surprise and grow up to be sensible and successful. What would I do with my pre-prepared lecture then? I hope I’ll be a good dad and not a hypocrite. I’m nothing if not deeply flawed myself so I’ve got a lot of tolerance in me for those who recognise their own mistakes. But if someone’s set on a path of self-destruction there’s actually very little you can do about it without alienating them. I don’t know. Maybe I’ll leave it to the wife to sort out. She’s good at this sort of stuff.
Now you have a collection of children, where does your future lie?
Skid row I suspect.
How often do you write, and do you plan on slowing down/speeding up when your children are older?
I write every day (excluding weekends). I’d like to slow down one day but when you’re in the middle of the sea you either have to keep kicking or sink. That’s where I am at the moment.
Do you look forward to a peaceful retirement, or is you writing still pleasurable after all these years of struggle?
I’ll probably write until the day I die because I love it. I love the process of sitting down and writing. Some don’t but I always have. Personally I think you have to because the money, glamour and acclaim is a fickle pile of horse shit that can (and will) dry up when you least expect it to. Write for yourself. Write something that you’re proud of. If you can do that then job done. Anything else is a bonus. Of course this is very easy for me to say, and I do acknowledge that. It’s great being a published writer but it’s pretty darn crap being a struggling unpublished writer (I’ve been there too). So you might as well like what you’re writing because if you don’t then you’re wasting your time doing something you hate for no gain. if this is you stop immediately and go and find something else you want to do. You’ll be happier for it.
Check back on Cultured Vultures soon to read Danny’s excellent advice to those who have yet to be published.