Ray Celestin is an international man of mystery. Well, in so much as Googling him only gives links to his publisher’s author pages and results for his debut novel The Axeman’s Jazz. I haven’t even been able to track down a picture. That, and he writes mystery/crime novels, so you know mystery man in more ways than one. The Axeman’s Jazz sounds fantastic and it’s my first back-up novel in my historical fiction month, so if I read faster than expected, I’ll review it near the end of the month and otherwise soon after. Today, I’m really pleased to be able to share the following interview with you and solve a bit of the mystery!
Let’s start with the basics. Who is Ray Celestin?
Ha. It’s so hard to answer that without making this sound like a dating site profile. I’m in my thirties and live in London, I’ve been writing for almost ten years now, short stories and film and TV scripts. The Axeman’s Jazz is my first novel. Most of all I enjoy reading, and would say I’m a reader before I’m a writer. I’m a big fan of genre fiction.
Your killer in The Axeman’s Jazz is a true historical killer. Did you have to do much research into his case and New Orleans in 1919?
Yes, there was lots of research, but it’s something I really enjoy doing. It combines history and reading, which are two of my favourite things! There’s a lot of information out there on New Orleans in the early 1900s as it was the birthplace of jazz, so it’s been covered extensively by musicologists (Thomas Brothers’ books are particularly excellent). The New Orleans Public Library is a great resource too. The only sad thing was that many of the great musicians of the time passed away before their music could ever be recorded, so there is a sense of loss to the research too.
How hard was it to get into your characters’ heads? Did you have any short cuts, like listening to a certain piece of music to get yourself in the right head space to write?
There weren’t any short-cuts unfortunately, but luckily it wasn’t too hard. On an emotional level, I don’t think people change too much over the generations, so it was easy to figure out what the characters’ emotional reactions to all the plot points would be. That wasn’t the case with their thought process though, as I think that’s more influenced by society and environmental conditioning. I had to second-guess myself all the time, stop and think, ‘hang on, would someone in 1910s America really think that?’ So I tried to keep the stuff going on in the character’s heads at an emotional level, because that was easier to connect with, and I think, maybe more interesting too.
I read that you specifically went looking on the internet for a serial killer to use as a subject ̶̶ the NSA must have loved your search history! ̶̶ and found the Axeman. Were there any other killers that almost made the grade? Are you keeping them in reserve for future books?
Well, I was originally writing a story about a serial killer who was called The Mad Butcher of Kingsbury Run, who was active in Cleveland in the 1930s. It was an interesting story because Elliot Ness, from The Untouchables, was involved in the case. I had to stop work on it because of a competing project, so I started looking for other serial killers I could write the book about and luckily I found the Axeman. There were a few others I found during the auditions, but I had to pass on them, as none were quite as intriguing as the Axeman.
The Axeman’s Jazz is very much a historical crime thriller. Was it your intention to write a historical piece and do you intend to write more historical work?
Yes. I love historical novels, and I see the Axeman as a bit of fan fiction dedicated to the genre. I like the idea of combining different historical settings with different genres to create new cocktails that might be a bit unexpected. I guess Alex Grecian’s The Yard is a recent example of what I mean, it’s a police procedural set in Victorian London, kind of like a Victorian CSI.
What’s next for you? Are there more books in the works?
There’s definitely more books in the works! I’m about to start the sequel to the Axeman, which will be set in Chicago at height of the roaring 20s. Louis Armstrong and Al Capone will make an appearance, as will some of the other characters from the Axeman, and some new ones too. Aside from that, at the end of last year I sold a film script for a contemporary crime thriller. It’s about some gangsters who have to go on a road trip together. It’s supposed to start shooting soon in Canada, so I’m looking forward to that being completed.
Is there something else you’re passionate about other than writing and books?
Probably the only thing that comes close is going to the cinema, particularly if it’s an old film that’s on at a repertory screening. Aside from that, it’s all pretty much reading and writing.
As a book reviewer, I’m all about the book enabling; I can’t help but want to make people read all the good books out there. But I can always use help. What are your top recommendations of books we should look out for in the coming months?
I don’t really get to read many new books, but my publisher recently passed me a copy of Jesse Bruton’s The Miniaturist, which I’ve started reading and am really enjoying so far. It’s set in Holland in the 1600s and is beautifully written.
Finally, I have to stay true to my roots and ask a librarian question to finish off with: Do you shelve your books alphabetically, by genre or do you have an ingenious system?
I’m going to sound like a proper nerd here. One part of one of my shelves is for all the books I have bought but haven’t read yet (it’s a bit like a ‘to do list’, which is quite sad). Then other parts are filled up with research books for different projects, then everything else is organised by colour, which quite a few friends have informed me is the hallmark of a nut-case. When I think of a book, I normally think of its cover and that brings to mind a colour, so the easiest way for me to find a book is searching for its colour. In Georges Perec’s Brief Notes on the Art and Manner of Arranging One’s Books, colour comes third on the list of ‘ways of arranging your books’, after alphabetically and by continent or country, so maybe it’s not as strange as it sounds. Plus, it looks quite nice.
Bio: Ray Celestin lives in London. He studied Asian art and languages at university and is a script writer for film and TV, as well as publishing several short stories. THE AXEMAN’S JAZZ is his first novel.