The path to success for an author can be long and rocky but Howard Linskey has had a good North East grounding in disappointment. He’s a Newcastle United fan.
A quick internet search will tell you lots about his increasingly successful crime novels – the third one, The Dead, is just out – but even more about the gut-wrenching trials and tribulations of the diehard Magpies supporter.
He tells me he owes his break as a published writer to popular fanzine The Mag. “I suppose I owe a lot to Mark Jensen (editor and founder) because he gave me a lot of confidence at a time when I didn’t really have any.
“He let me write on virtually every theme and I did that for four years.”
Howard was invited back earlier this year, given a platform as a guest writer to celebrate the fanzine’s 25th anniversary. Could he rise above the supporter’s enduring sense of hurt?
Could he heck! The article, published on Howard’s blog, is called Abandon All Hope Ye Who Enter Here and it’s a fascinating insight into the anguish of a fan in the Mike Ashley era.
Natural eloquence, so seriously challenged, splutters on the brink of wordless incomprehensibility.
Since his beloved team had recently notched up four successive wins, I’d thought I might catch Howard on a rare, football-induced high. But the night before, as if starved of oxygen in the upper reaches of the league, Newcastle had got stuffed at Swansea. “It’s terrible,” says the bestselling author, trying to step outside himself.
“I’ve got a Google alert telling me everything that happens at Newcastle United. I’m a grown man. I’m 46. I should really stop caring about this quite so much. I’ve got a seven-year-old girl who lives in Welwyn Garden City who supports Newcastle because of me.
“But I can’t help it. If you’re a North East bloke you get to like football and if you’re a Newcastle fan you’ve got black and white blood.”
Howard actually grew up in County Durham where football blood can take on a more conventional hue. But the other North East teams could offer nothing to match the sight of Malcolm Macdonald in a monochrom number nine shirt.
Howard realised at the age of 11 that there was no point in harbouring a dream of following in Supermac’s studded footsteps. “I didn’t get picked for the first team and I didn’t get picked for the reserves.”
At the age of 18, he was “scrapping around trying to find something I could do”. Lacking in self-belief, he tried his hand at a bit of this and that. The only thing he thought he could do was write – so he wrote a film script.
It “got really good feedback”. Nothing came of it, though.
He trained as a journalist and worked on local papers in the North West. He enjoyed it but found the money wasn’t great and, having written all day, he couldn’t raise the energy to write his own stuff in the evening. Eventually he was “lured down south” to work in marketing and sales.
But he also worked doggedly on a book, a factual account of a plot to assassinate a Nazi general. After the slog of writing plus three years of research, involving a trip to Prague, it remains unpublished.
Hope, though, springs eternal (as every footie fan will grudgingly admit). “It’s a good apprenticeship to write one book,” reasons Howard. “You learn the craft of writing.”
Again the feedback was good. Publishers said: “We like it but...”
But he did get a good agent, Philip Patterson, who wittily told him: “I’m a Sunderland supporter. Only kidding! I’m a Newcastle fan.”
He advised his similarly afflicted new acquaintance to try his hand at a crime novel, “because they’re easier to interest people in”.
“But,” says Howard, “I didn’t want to write about a middle-aged detective with a drink problem.”
I sympathise, wondering what possible quirk could be left to distinguish a new fictional crime-buster from all the rest.
“You’d have to make him quite odd,” agrees Howard. “Perhaps he could be a crazed Newcastle United fan?” Instead he came up with David Blake. “He’s a white collar gangster who doesn’t consider himself a gangster because he’s never going to get into any bother,” Howard told Phil, who kept urging him: “Tell me more, tell me more...”
Blake, now in print and doing well, is a baddie who relies on brains rather than brawn. He’s the kind of guy women like, suggests Howard, in the same way they like the roguish types in The Sopranos or Mad Men on TV.
The books are set in and around Newcastle. The city provides an atmospheric and oddly overlooked backdrop to a thriller, he reckons, although other North East writers such as Ann Cleeves and Mari Hannah are also doing their bit to sprinkle a bit of Get Carter-style grit over the region.
The Dead follows The Drop and The Damage, all – like The Dead – published by No Exit Press which is based in Harpenden, near where Howard lives. He says the third book completes a trilogy although it doesn’t necessarily mean the end of Blake.
If recent developments bear fruit, he will definitely be back. Howard has been talking to a top film producer who has taken a shine to his books and, while he is not counting his chickens, a TV film or series could be on the way.
Before then, though, Howard will be signing copies of The Dead at branches of WH Smith this weekend (as well as taking time out to watch Newcastle play Southampton).
You can catch him on Friday in the Metrocentre branch (11am-2pm) and on Northumberland Street, Newcastle (3.30-5pm); then at WH Smith, Gosforth, on Saturday (11am-1pm).