An Interview with
John Williams

Around here the release of a new John Williams book is always an eagerly anticipated event. Like no other writer before him, Williams has captured the elusive voice of Cardiff's tough criminal underclass and given us free access to its secret conversations. In Temperance Town, his latest work, he continues to delve into the lives of hustlers, lowlifes and, by way of a change, "a fucked-up copper". A Cardiff writer he may be but Williams's appeal - like his influence - travels way beyond the boundaries of his native city. This email interview was completed in June 2004.



Are you happy with the label "Cardiff writer" or are you starting to feel geographically trapped by the success of your previous novels?

John Williams: I like it well enough - at least in the sense that George V. Higgins was a Boston writer or Gerald Kersh a London writer. Obviously I'm less keen on the implication that my stuff is only of interest to people from Cardiff. I have written about places other than Cardiff before and no doubt will do again - in fact I tried recently to write another London novel, but it didn't work out so I'm writing about Cardiff again at the moment. It's a good size of place to write about, big enough but not too big (as it is to live in, I suppose).

It was in Into the Badlands (1991) that you first seriously explored the relationship between crime, fiction and location. Why this fascination (almost a literary fetishisation) for the criminal ghetto?

John Williams: Don't know about fetishisation, but the criminal world does interest me. It interests everyone of course as the success of anything from Only Fools And Horses to Inspector Morse to Shameless testifies. I think what particularly interests me is how people live in a strata of society where there are very few rules except those they construct for themselves. I also tend to like the physical spaces in which such people operate (which is a posh way of saying pubs, bars, diners etc, etc).

Into the Badlands was responsible for introducing a whole new British audience to American crime fiction - how did you set about organising that project?

John Williams: Lightbulb moment in the pub after a day spent working in a bookshop in Camden Town. Talking to friends about how much reading American crime fiction made us want to visit the actual locations - with reference particularly to James Crumley's Montana. At the time I was also books columnist for the Face which was a hot magazine then so I was able to pitch the idea first to an agent and then to various publishers and get it accepted.

Not many people can say they've met Elmore Leonard, James Ellroy, Carl Hiaasen, James Lee Burke, Sara Paretsky, Andrew Vachss etc. What was it like coming face to face with your literary heroes and who impressed you most?

John Williams: It was good (a lot better than meeting Patti Smith when I was 17). I tend to get on with writers. Some of them were odd - Joseph Koenig for instance; one was tricky - George V. Higgins; one was tired and professional - Elmore Leonard; one was in retrospect kind of tragic - the late Eugene Izzi. Most fun was definitely James Crumley.

Apart from anything else Into the Badlands is an excellent piece of travel writing - how come you haven't done more?

John Williams: I've done a bit for the Sunday Times over the years and I started but never finished a follow-up to Badlands which would have taken me through the world of country music. But demands of family have tended to keep me fairly rooted to the spot these days.

In 1995
Bloody Valentine, A Killing in Cardiff was published. I remember it being avidly read and passed around amongst friends and relatives. It seemed to tap right into some dark part of our collective psyche. Looking back why do you think the Lynette White case had such a powerful resonance in the city?

John Williams: I think very simply it reminded us that Cardiff is a city built on its docks, and this was something we'd come to hide and see as shameful - and were in the process of dismantling in the interest of creating what we now call Cardiff Bay. I think the Lynette White murder made us aware of our shared history and guilty at our forgetting.

You opened Bloody Valentine with a brilliant 'factional' passage (it still haunts me) detailing the last moments of Lynette White's life, her murder, and the immediate aftermath. How did you feel about the possibility that Lynette White's relatives might, at some point, read what you'd written?

John Williams: Well I assume they read the autopsy results, so the real horror of what happened must have massively outweighed that of my fictionalisation. That said I put the passage in because I wanted the reader to remember that the case was about a dead girl. Otherwise the focus elsewhere on the miscarriage of justice could have made the reader forget that - appallingly treated though the Cardiff Three/Five were - there was another victim who didn't live to tell the tale.

What were your feelings when Jeffrey Gafoor was recently arrested and convicted for Lynette White's murder?

John Williams: Happy for all concerned that there is at last an end to it (and of course a little bit of self-satisfaction that the killer pretty much fitted the profile I gave him in my book).

Although your Cardiff trilogy is regarded as crime fiction those books aren't whodunnits or procedurals, but examinations of lowlife and criminal sub-cultures, reminiscent (in my eyes, anyway) of Nelson Algren and Colin MacInnes. Do you agree?

John Williams: Thank you for that. Those are absolutely the two closest models for what I do. Not, oddly enough, that I think either of them are consistently great writers, but they mine precisely the same kind of territory that I'm interested in (right up to the fact that the final part of MacInnes's London trilogy features a pimp as its central character, just like The Prince Of Wales - something I only realised after the fact).

As a white middle-class author who is fictionally mining a multi-cultural working-class environment do you think your Butetown novels are in any way exploitational?

John Williams: I hope not, but I can't exactly be the judge of that. I would like to point out that neither Cardiff Dead nor The Prince of Wales are more than partially set in Butetown.

Have you made a conscious effort not to exoticize Butetown?

John Williams: Well, fact of the matter is Butetown today is a hard place to glamorise. If I wrote about it in the past there would be a temptation to glamorise I suspect.

Your books convey a strong sense of injustice at the way local people have been airbrushed (literally in the case of one advertising campaign) out of the bright new Cardiff Bay enterprise. Do you acknowledge that there is a political element to your writing?

John Williams: Yes, definitely but I hope the politics are implicit and come from the realities of peoples lives rather than explicit and imposed on them by me.

Do you write with a London audience in mind or are you, in a sense, explaining Cardiff to itself?

John Williams: Well it's a terrible cliché but I think I write in the first instance for myself, and what I'm doing is trying to make sense of the world I live in, and as I live in Cardiff it's seen though the prism of Cardiff. Obviously I can see that that can have particular appeal to other people who live in Cardiff, but the divide in terms of imagined readers is me/rest of world, definitely not Cardiff/London - a distinction it's a bit too easy to make.

Your books are always liberally sprinkled with pop cultural references. Is this something that has arisen from your journalism or does it go back further than that?

John Williams: Further I suppose, inasmuch as I became a journalist because I knew an unhealthy amount about pop culture. In the narrower sense of pop culture I was in a Cardiff punk band and wrote a couple of punk fanzines way before I became a pro journalist.

OK brace yourself: how healthy do you think the Welsh literary scene is at present and are you now a member of the Welsh literary establishment?

John Williams: Pretty healthy and I hope not, though inevitably up to a point. I've edited an anthology of new Welsh fiction called Wales Half Welsh (another Colin MacInnes reference) which will be coming out through Bloomsbury in September - includes contributions from Griffiths, Pryce, Trezise, Hawes, Barry, Burke, Davis, Hadley, Wooff, Azzopardi, Robson and myself. There's an introduction where I muse on the whole Welsh lit scene question, which might be of interest.

Finally, can you tell us a bit about your forthcoming book Temperance Town, what can we expect?

John Williams: More of the same. It's another Five Pubs style set of linked stories. Half a dozen Mikey stories in which he gets fractionally older and wiser, a Colonel story set in Newport, and then a noir novella about a fucked-up copper. It's the fourth part of the 'trilogy' I suppose.

Thanks John.

John Williams: To you too.

Temperance Town is on sale now at a bookstore near you and is published by Bloomsbury.

©Anthony Brockway 2004