An interview with Max Kinnings
Welcome to Thinking about books. By way of introduction, Max Kinnings is the author of five books, the most recent being Baptism and Sacrifice which feature the character Ed Mallory as a hostage negotiator.
Perhaps I should begin with an apology that I’m very interested in the craft of writing and so, with your indulgence, I’d like to talk a little about how you came to draw up the plot of this, so far, latest duology. Hopefully as one who teaches creative writing, you’ll share some aspects of the process of creating this character. I’m curious about the choice of a disabled protagonist. He seems a paradox. His blindness excludes him from the routine of social interaction which so often depends on the ability to interpret visual signals, e.g. choice of clothing, facial expressions, body language, etc. yet his profession requires him to empathise with others under pressure. I suppose the mechanism of communication with hostage takers levels the playing field — he “hears” more than his sighted colleagues — but it also remains a barrier to his integration into the team. So why pick someone with “limitations”?
Originally, the Ed Mallory character was very different from the one that appears in the published version of Baptism. Firstly, he wasn’t blind. Secondly, he was an alcoholic with relationship issues. This version of Ed Mallory actually appeared in the first published version of Baptism in Holland in 2009. However, when my agent had shopped the manuscript around publishers in the UK, they were lukewarm in their feelings towards the character. My agent suggested that the Ed character was possibly a little too derivative. The big drinking cop with relationship issues is someone that we’ve encountered many times before in crime fiction. He suggested that I revisit the character with a view to changing him possibly quite drastically.
Much of the day-to-day writing of Baptism was carried out at the British Library on Euston Road in central London. I love the learned atmosphere of what is one of the world’s great libraries. I would take the Tube up from my home in south London to Kings Cross station. Very close to the library is the Royal National Institute for the Blind and quite often I would offer an arm to blind people who were leaving the Tube train at Kings Cross to make their way to the RNIB as the escalators and steps up from the station can be quite awkward. Whether there was some subconscious connection between this and my decision to make Ed Mallory blind, I can’t say for certain but almost as soon as I started to rethink Ed’s character, I knew that I wanted to make him blind – and scarred, not just physically but emotionally too. His loss of a sense would make his other senses stronger and for a negotiator who spends the vast majority of his time speaking to people on the other end of a phone line, this might be a very useful attribute. One of the key skills of hostage negotiation is what is known as active listening. To create a character whose abilities as an active listener were sharpened and enhanced appealed to me.
However, when I started to rewrite the book with the new Ed character, I realised that I had created all sorts of complications for myself. So much of what a writer describes from the point of view of a character is visual. But gradually, I came to inhabit Ed’s mindset and enjoyed the challenge of describing the sounds, the smells and the tactile sensations that he experiences. The fiction editors in London certainly shared my enthusiasm for the new character and whereas the original story had been rejected by a number of publishers on its first round of submissions; the new Ed Mallory character proved to be much more popular and Quercus finally bought the rights.
With hindsight, I’m really glad that I made Ed a blind character. While it excludes him from much in terms of the visual signals and body language of his colleagues and the negotiating team in which he operates, when it comes to the negotiation which forms so much of the drama of the book (and its sequel) it makes for some much more intriguing drama. My decision to make him blind brought him alive for me and I found I could inhabit his character much more effectively.
In Bushi no Ichibun (武士の一分), Love and Honor (2006), the samurai warrior loses his sight but, when his honour is at stake, he learns to fight again. This film offers a fairly realistic portrayal of supervening blindness, unlike Daredevil which makes as much sense as you expect from a comic book hero. Have you been tempted to allow your protagonist to learn new physical skills, or to give him the chance to experiment with new technology like screen readers or refreshable Braille displays to give him internet access, or some of the new sensory substitution systems for giving greater mobility?
My reason for asking is my slight uncertainty whether your hero has come to terms with the blindness. While he’s adapted that’s not the same as accepting and moving on.
Other than the enhancement of his listening abilities which his blindness gives him and which he uses to good effect during his hostage negotiations, I didn’t want Ed to come to terms with his blindness, certainly not in the first two books in the series. Much of his alienation from society stems from his refusal to accept his visual impairment. He doesn’t use a dog to help him in his everyday life and wouldn’t ever consider using a white cane. His singularity as a character comes from the fact that despite having been blinded some thirteen years prior to the events that take place in Baptism, he has still not come to terms with his blindness. His job as a police hostage negotiator and subsequently a negotiator-for-hire in Sacrifice, provides him with some validation as a blind person but this doesn’t mean that he is in any way ready to achieve acceptance of his disability. However, in the event that I do write further books in the series, I think it would be interesting to see Ed change his outlook with regards to his condition and start to explore sensory substitution systems, especially if this can form an integral part of the plot.
You also hew to the Aristotelian unities of time and, to a lesser extent, action. This is a further challenge. In addition to a protagonist with physical limitations, you impose the limit of having everything happen in just a few hours.
As far as my decision to impose the limit of having everything happen in just a few hours is concerned, this was something that had been my intention right from the very first notes that I made about the story. Many thrillers employ the ticking clock concept as a means of ratcheting up the tension. I wanted to place that at the heart of the novel by having the train tunnel flooding over the space of a few hours so there is a very specific deadline for the authorities to adhere to.
I’m a firm believer in the benefits that creative limitations can bring to a story. As a teacher of creative writing, I’ve seen many writers struggle with the ultimate freedom that fiction writing provides. Often this can cause writer’s block. But as soon as some creative limitations are imposed, often the imagination reacts to them and a story is born. A blind protagonist and a narrative of interconnecting story-lines that plays out over the space of just a few hours are two creative limitations that caused all sorts of problems for me in many respects but were also really quite inspiring. Hopefully Baptism is all the better for them.