Buy it online
You see, I always wanted to be a writer, but being a writer isn't something you can just go out and do a job interview for. You have to write something that people want to read. And it took me a very long time to realize what I could do.
Michael Dibdin -- 1947 - 2007
Michael Dibdin died at home in Seattle on March 30, 2007, just a few days after his 60th birthday.
Born in Wolverhampton, England, Dibdin was best known as the author of the Aurelio Zen mysteries, set in Italy.
A few days after his death, January Magazine senior editor wrote a remembrance of this much loved author. You can read it in full here.
January Magazine had the privilege of interviewing Mr. Dibdin early in 1999. That conversation remains intact below. -- April 2007
Michael Dibdin's prose often moves reviewers to poetic waxing. "Limpid and extraordinary," Val McDermid wrote in The Manchester Evening News. While The Globe and Mail said that Dibdin is, "Supremely talented and enormously witty." Dibdin is a writer's writer in a genre where wordsmithing is not always the most important thing. In fact, some of the best-loved and most widely read crime fiction authors have not always put prose on an even footing with story. And while this has changed in recent years, Dibdin remains one of an elite cadre of crime fiction writers for whom literary critics break out all of their favorite adjectives.
In person Michael Dibdin's warmth is not immediately apparent. There is, at first, almost a shyness to our exchange: perhaps a caution. This is the slightly self-protective, intensely private Dibdin who -- when he married Seattle writer and single mom Kathrine Beck (a.k.a. K.K. Beck) -- acquired the house next door to hers in order to have a peaceful nest where he could spin his yarns.
Dibdin does warm, though. He has the sort of passion for his work and his genre that doesn't allow distance in discussion that he finds interesting. Before long, his self-protection is abandoned and his eyes sparkle with interest and intelligence as he discusses his work and his passions.
Of the twelve book-length yarns he's spun and seen published, half have featured Dibdin's Italian sleuth Aurelio Zen, the character he created a decade ago without ever thinking he was beginning a crime fiction series. "Part of the reason the series works for me is that it wasn't really meant to be a series," Dibdin says. He wrote the first one -- Ratking -- because he wanted to write a book that included some of his experiences living in Italy. "So I invented the Zen character for that book, but I wasn't really particularly interested in him, so there wasn't really a lot about him in that book. He's really just a facilitator who comes in and makes it possible for other things to happen."
In the most recent book in the series, A Long Finish, Zen has been ordered to an Italian backwater in order to help clear the name of a local vintner who is accused of brutally murdering his father. And, as usual, Zen facilitates while the intricate plot spins on around him.
Linda Richards: I have a sense that your career is really picking up steam. Are you feeling that as well?
Michael Dibdin: Yes, I think so. It's been slow, steady growth. This particular one, [A Long Finish], certainly in the UK, has been a sort of incremental leap. I don't know why. It just seems to have done better than previous ones. But it's been steady growth rather than huge breakthroughs. Which is fine with me.
Where's the largest portion of your readership, geographically?
Well, it depends on what you mean. If you mean raw numbers, that's one thing. If you mean proportion of population...
Raw numbers, probably the United States and the UK are sort of even now. Which of course means I have a very small proportion of the American market. The book is also translated into, I think, 16 languages now. I do very well in Germany. Pretty well in France. I won a prize over there. And in Scandinavia. And in Japan.
And in Italy?
The books are published there, but Italians take a sort of very elitist approach to anything that could be labeled as a genre or crime fiction or mysteries. They're probably one of the last countries that do. So their mystery books are not published like normal books. There's really only one publisher that does them, and they do them on a weekly basis and they're published almost like a magazine and in fact they're sold at news agents rather than in book shops and they obviously don't get reviewed or anything like that. But it's the same thing for anyone. That's just the way it is over there.
I guess I asked specifically about Italy because -- in your Zen novels -- there's so much Italian stuff.
Well, no one's said, "You got this wrong," so far.
That's good. They don't hate you in Italy.
No, no, they don't. They're very tolerant about people criticizing the things which they criticize themselves. The institutions in Italy, the way they function -- or more usually don't function. Which is exactly what any Italian will tell you.
Have you spent a lot of time in Italy?
Well, I lived there for five years and I go back quite a bit.
Where did you live?
Sort of halfway between Florence and Rome.
So that's where Zen was born? When you were living in Italy?
Yes. Actually, the first book in which he appears is called Ratking and I didn't actually write that until I'd left Italy. I went back to England and I wanted to write about my experiences and I invented him for that book. And then that won a prize from the British Crime Writers Association and so that gave the book and the character a certain amount of prominence and people started saying, you know "When's the next one coming along?" And at that point I thought it would be interesting to move him to a completely different part of Italy. And it sort of really rolled along from there.
And he's moving again.
Well, I keep him moving because I don't want to have books which are all set in the same place. That seems to be one of the pleasures of writing about Italy. Regionally it's different -- so diverse -- you can actually get a completely different take depending on where he ends up next.
Where's he from?
He's from Venice. In fact in the fourth book, Dead Lagoon, he goes back there. There were three reasons I made him be from Venice. One was that I'd just been there for the first time. The second was that it's obviously somewhere that everyone knows about, so you don't have to spend a lot of time explaining where this place is, or what it meant and so on. And I suppose the third reason is, it's a slightly unreal place to be from. Because although there are a few thousand Venetians left, they're getting fewer every year. And it's obviously perceived very much as a sort of medieval theme park. Which it wasn't when Zen was growing up there. It was really immediately after the war when they built the industrial port on the mainland that Venice lost its vocation. And it's been all downhill... I mean, not financially obviously because there's lots of money calling in. But it's a slightly odd place to be from.
And it's sinking!
It's not, actually. It's a myth. So I've reliably been informed by people who don't believe it. Of course, some people do believe it.
In the brief time we've been chatting, I've noticed that you speak about Zen quite affectionately. Almost as though you're talking about a friend. Do you feel that way?
Yes, I do. He's a friend I like, but I don't feel I know terribly well. Which is an advantage, you know. He's capable of surprising me. In fact, in each new book that I write, he usually does surprise me at some point. And I think that's an important thing to do when you're writing a series, because otherwise it can just get too easy.
Does it help to like him?
I don't know if you have to like them, I think you have to find them interesting. I can't imagine writing about somebody that you didn't find interesting. Obviously there are people who... I mean Patricia Highsmith, for example you know, in the Ripley books. I'm not sure how she felt about Ripley who's a very unpleasant person, indeed. But I think she found him interesting. That's what you need, really.
It wouldn't be nice if, down the line, you found you didn't feel like writing about this character anymore, but your readers continued to want more books about him.
I don't think that would occur. I don't think it would work to go on writing the books under those circumstances. And, you know, you can sort of see cases of series where the writer really has gotten fed up with the character. And sometimes they just stop. And sometimes they keep going: usually with disastrous results.
I think part of the reason the series works for me is that it wasn't really meant to be a series. The first one, Ratking, was, as I said, about a place where I lived in Italy. I wanted to write a book about my experiences there because writers like to use their experiences: you don't want anything to go to waste. So I invented the Zen character for that book, but I wasn't really particularly interested in him, so there wasn't really a lot about him in that book. He's really just a facilitator who comes in and makes it possible for other things to happen. My main interest was in the other people. The potential suspects and accomplices and so on. Looking back on it -- although I didn't do it consciously -- I think it was a very smart move. Because what it meant was that when I came to book two I had a lot of leeway in terms of which way the character would go. Though it strikes me that some series which are consciously planned as series -- sort of, you know, one imagines the writer sitting down with a notebook and says, "Right. I'm going to create a protagonist for this series and these are the newspapers she reads. Here are her political opinions. Here's what she feels about -- you know -- whatever it is: she's a vegetarian. She's this, she's that." So you get this complete sort of dossier. All of which you get in book one. Well, that's fine for book one, but what do you do you do for an encore? Because short of her turning out to be schizophrenic you're going to have to trot it all out again for book two.
Right, I see. Because this [holding A Long Finish] is a very complete story. I mean, there are allusions to things that have gone on in the past. But we do that in all types of writing.
Oh sure. Yes. You can start anywhere. Each one is self-contained.
Are you a wine connoisseur? Are you interested in wine?
Well, I mean I drink a lot of it. [Laughs] Not quite the same thing. I'm not a connoisseur in that sense. I'm not someone who is prepared to spend $50 a bottle and then lay it down for the 10 years it's going to take for it to be drinkable. And then "ooh" and "ah" over it.
Well, I met someone who lives there and we got married.
Yeah, actually. We met at a writer's conference in Spain. Her name is Kathrine Beck. One thing led to another.
Does she also write fiction?
Yes. She writes mysteries. We met at a crime writing conference in Spain. There were people there from all over the world.
Do you help each other in your work?
Actually, yeah. I mean, not on a regular basis but if someone has a problem with something it's helpful to be able to run the problem past someone who understands what kind of problem it is. It's not that the other person is going to come up with solutions, but it just gives you someone you can talk to whose eyes don't glaze over after two minutes of it.
You guys should be doing promotional tours together !
No. That'd be too twee. Next thing you know we'd be writing joint cozies where the detective is a parrot or something.
Your first marriage?
Nope. My third.
You have kids?
Yes: both daughters. One is 23 and one is 10. And Kathrine has three kids, so we're pretty well kidded out. I was joking the other day that anyone not realizing the history behind all of this would think that we were some kind of Catholic family because we've got five kids and they happened to be spaced at sort of three year intervals.
How many of your 12 novels are Zen-based?
Six. What I've done in the past is to alternate Zens with non-Zens. I have a year off, from the Zens. I have in fact just done two of the Zen books together because that just happened to be what I had the idea for. So that's what I did. This one and Cosi [Fan Tutti]. And I am actually doing another one now, so it'll be three by the time I finish this. But then I definitely want to do something which doesn't involve him. But, you know, you can only write books for which you have an idea for at the time.
Do you write quite regularly?
Yes, every day.
Your last non-Zen book, Dark Specter was, I think, a fairly important book for you. The critics loved it.
The critics loved it, yeah. I enjoyed writing it. It was an attempt to do a sort of American thriller. You know: with the big cast and moving around a lot. Different locales and so on and so I enjoyed doing it.
Did it sell very well?
It sold all right, you know. And it sold, I think, better outside of the States than it sold inside. It's about a religious cult which goes around killing people more or less randomly. And I think in the wake of Waco this really wasn't something that Americans wanted to hear about. And of course it's another one of those instances where one rubs up against being labeled as a genre writer because you know there is an expectation. I think that genre writing -- although it can deal with ugly stuff -- is ultimately going to be sort of reassuring and sort of cozy. Perhaps that feeling is stronger in the States than it is elsewhere, but it seems that I was sort of perceived as transgressing against that, in a way. That's been the case with some of the earlier non-Zen books. Like The Dying of the Light. People just find them too disturbing.
But the critics loved it?
Yes. It got very good reviews. But it's word of mouth that tends to really get things going.
And in the wake of Waco and just before Heaven's Gate...
That's right. Exactly.
So in the UK it did better?
Yes, it sold very nicely in the UK. And sold very nicely indeed on the continent. But anyway you can't program what you're going to do on the basis of how well you think it'll sell. You just have to write the idea that you have at the time.
People sometimes ask me if I resent being regarded as a crime writer. And the answer is no I don't, on the whole. Except at those times when you realize that the book is not necessarily going to get taken terribly seriously in terms of what you're trying to do, because people are already expecting it to be a certain kind of book on the basis of its bill as a thriller or as a mystery novel or something. So there is a lack of a completely open mind on some people's part when it comes to reading stuff that has already been prepackaged in that way.
Is that changing at all?
I don't know. It certainly has changed a lot from the situation say 40 or 50 years ago when there was a much clearer demarcation between genre fiction and so called mainstream. So I think, yes: it is changing.
Did you always know you wanted to be a writer?
Pretty well always, I think.
Did you take your training in that way? With that in mind ?
No. I just stayed at university for as long as I could. I took a BA in English at Sussex University in England and then took an MA from the University of Alberta in Edmonton.
Why did you originally leave England?
I was actually raised in Northern Ireland. So I sort of grew up as an ex-pat, in a way. And I've always been sort of restless. I just wanted to go somewhere different. I had no intention of staying as long as I did. I thought it would just be the year and then I'd go off and do something else and one thing led to another and then I couldn't imagine what the something else would be, either. So, that's what happened. And then I did one semester of a Ph.D. course and I said, "This is getting ridiculous." You see, I always wanted to be a writer, but being a writer isn't something you can just go out and do a job interview for. You have to write something that people want to read. And it took me a very long time to realize what I could do.
Did you have an epiphany?
Well, if you want to put it that way, yes I did actually. Hit fast forward slightly, my first wife and I went back to England to visit my parents. And while we were there a very remote relative of mine -- a great uncle -- died and left his house in London to my father. My father and mother already owned one house, so my wife and I went and lived there. As a result we had five years in London and it was while I was there that I had the idea -- which was a semi-epiphany in a way -- for the first book which did get published: The Last Sherlock Holmes Story.
We were living in this area of west London called Chesswick and a Canadian friend of mine was coming over with his girlfriend. It turned out he was interested in the Jack the Ripper murders back in the Victorian era. So I got a book and read up on them so I could take him to the remaining murder sites in the East End: being the good host. At the same time, my wife was reading the Sherlock Holmes stories and those two ideas sort of clicked. And I thought, "That would be a nice little story for somebody." And then it got to the point where I was waking up at three o'clock in the morning working out the plot. And eventually I wrote the damn thing as much as anything else so I could get a decent night's sleep.
I showed it to a friend of mine who ran a book shop in London and he said, "I think you stand a pretty good chance of getting this one published. Get yourself an agent." There's a thing published in the UK called The Writer's and Artist's Yearbook which lists all the agents. I didn't know anyone: so I just sort of stuck a pin in the page and sent it off to this person, and they sent it off to a publisher and it got published. I just about fell over because here I'd been... I'd already written three unpublished -- and thank God, still unpublished -- novels by this point. And I was really starting to think, "I don't know what it takes to be a writer, but obviously you haven't got it." And then I sort of dashed off this thing really as kind of fun thing for me to do. And lo and behold, I didn't get a rejection letter. They actually wanted to publish it.
It's still in print, too, isn't it?
It certainly is.
What year was that?
1978. And it was like I'd been beating my head against a wall for years and years and years and then suddenly there was a door over there. But then, of course the question was, what do you do for an encore? Because I didn't want to spend the rest of my life writing Sherlock Holmes pastiches. Because that's what it is: a pastiche of Sherlock Holmes.
When the Vietnamese boat people were starting to come over to the UK there was an appeal for volunteers to teach one member of a family enough English to get out and deal with the things that we all have to deal with. That seemed like a sort of good thing to do, so I went along and did that. Then one of the professionals who were running we volunteers said, "Why don't you go and get yourself a qualification as an English teacher, then you can go anywhere in the world." So I did this and ended up in Italy. And I've never looked back.
You've really found a place in crime fiction, Michael. And the genre itself is really growing, don't you think?
I think one of the reasons it's so successful is that the mainstream seems to have lost its way a little bit. I mean the one thing you can be more or less sure of with crime fiction is that it is going to have a beginning, a middle and an end. In that order. And there isn't going to be too much sort of clever, clever fooling around: there isn't going to be any magic realism, you aren't going to be required to believe that people do things that we don't normally think of them doing. It's pretty straight-forward. Old-fashioned, realistic, objective fiction. So I think that's part of its appeal, really, is that we -- i.e. the crime writing community -- are among the few bits of the literary world now where the majority are busily doing that. And it has to be, you see, because the bottom line contract of a crime novel is that a crime has occurred. Someone investigates. And a solution is arrived at. It may not be the completely correct solution but essentially it is an objective, realistic genre because it's about the real world. It's about real bodies really being killed by somebody. And this involves the investigator in trying to understand the society that the person lived in. Who their friends were. Who their family were. Who they were. This is all doing research, but it's research based on a recognizable world, because everything makes sense in it.
Where do you see yourself in five years?
I don't know. I've sort of given up making five year plans.
I don't usually ask that question, but you seem to be in five year cycles in your life.
Well, yes. This has been pointed out. When Kathrine's two remaining kids at home have gone to college I think we might -- or almost certainly will -- spend a lot more time somewhere other than Seattle. That's not to say leave completely, but...
Yeah. Because the advantage to being a writer is that if you can do it at all, you can do it anywhere. So there's no particular reason to be in one place. | January 1999
Linda L. Richards is the editor of January Magazine and the author of several books.