Discovering Deadland: Q&A with William Shaw

Read our Q&A with author William Shaw discussing his new book, Deadland.

Posted on May 10, 2019 in Uncategorized

We go behind the scenes with author William Shaw as he discusses his new book Deadland with his editor, Rose Tomaszewska.  His new crime series starring the character DS Alexandra Cupidi from The Birdwatcher began with the stunning Salt Lane. The second book, Deadland, is out now.


Your new series is set in Kent, under the brooding shadows of the Dungeness power plant. It’s called the Garden of England, but in your books, it’s quite a divided, difficult place. What is it about Kent that makes it such a rich setting for crime novels?

Kent is the garden of England. But there’s a rusty bike in it covered in weeds and someone’s built a ramshackle garden shed in it and some illegal migrants are living in it. It’s a beautiful place that has been badly treated. It’s somehow the edge of England, too, anxious to see off invaders. Whatever one thinks of UKIP, it found a voice in Kent. So if you’re looking at a place which is a microcosm of everything that is happening in the UK, I think Kent is perfect. Plus Dungeness is a beautiful place that me and plenty of other people fantasise about living in.

You’ve taken a different tack with Deadland and written half the chapters focused not on the police detective, but on two runaway teenage boys. What’s it like to branch out from your usual structure, and what freedoms – and problems – did that bring?

It was hard! I broke my own rule. I always write from a single point of view. I’m practically fascist about it. One of the reasons why I’ll never write psych fiction is that as a reader I don’t like tricksy points of view. Even in The Birdwatcher, which is written from two points of view, it’s the same person, one a teenager, the other a middle-aged man. But then writing Deadland, I discovered the real freedom of having two different sets of eyes seeing the same thing at different times, understanding it differently and letting the reader know stuff that my characters don’t.

DEADLAND centres on a scandal in the art world, a crime that gets mixed up with the petty theft of teenagers. Did you have a political intention in contrasting two types of crime – those of the establishment elite, and those typically of a disenfranchised working class?

Kind of. Salt Lane was about an underclass of people, illegal migrants living in poor accommodation, ruthlessly exploited by employers. I thought I’d give readers a break and look into the world of the middle classes and super-rich instead. But then these two boys mugged the plot. It’s not a conscious political intention – I’m not trying to change anyone’s mind – but one of the things I love about the tradition of detective fiction is the way it draws its strength from the real world around us.

Detective Sergeant Alexandra Cupidi is a complex character whose personal life is sometimes as tricky as her police work. As this is your third book writing about her, how has she developed and what do you like most about writing from her point of view?

I’ve noticed that some single parents have a kind of urgency about their lives. They really don’t have the time to faff around and often speak their mind in a way that can seem really unconsidered. It’s a really useful trait in a character and I love it in Cupidi. And she is at that stage of parenting a difficult teenager where you can do absolutely nothing right. I love the contrast of the hero who is doing amazing, complex, dangerous, morally important things, but messing up things all the time at home.

Alongside the main plot, you tackle a challenging topic in Deadland – how working relationships are affected by sexual assault. After #MeToo, did you deliberately want to explore complex nuances about consent?

Well, I never really set out to do it. It’s specifically about what would happen if a police officer said she had been assaulted by another officer and it started as a five-minute “what if?” conversation with a writer and police officer called Lisa Cutts. Her answer about exactly what had to happen kind of horrified me. I realised how hard it would be for officers to negotiate this kind of is it/isn’t it? assault because of their own codes of practice, and started writing it into Deadland. We demand our police force work to extraordinary personal standards and a side-effect of that is that that can distort their own behaviour. They can end out watching their own backs, because if you’re caught breaking any rule, not reporting a possible crime, you’re out and you lose the job you love and the pension that goes with it. What’s interesting is that in situations like this, the victim loses all agency because they have to become an “official victim”, which is the opposite of what’s supposed to happen. And that’s what my victim in particular is most afraid of.

You’ve done a lot of events around the south of England. How have people responded to the series and have you found any more exciting stories or crimes you want to delve into?

It’s the biggest ego boost in the world when you go to an event and people are already engaged with the series and the characters. So many people had started asking what was happening to a character called Bill South, from The Birdwatcher, so I’m relieved to be able to say he’s back in Deadland. In my next book I’m dealing with some wildlife crime, specifically against badgers, and I’ve been asking people everywhere about whether they know of any setts in their area and getting them to tell me stories. Obviously a few bemused faces from the hardcore crime fans, but I’m learning a lot as I go.

Deadland is out now.

Find out more about William Shaw and the DS Alexandra Cupidi series here

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