What are your favourite books?
A Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner, The Book of Laughter and Forgetting by Milan Kundera, The Ballad of the Sad Cafe by Carson McCullers, The Masterpiece by Emile Zola, The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Red Badge of Courage by Stephen Crane, Crime & Punishment by Dostoevsky, Where Angels Fear to Tread by EM Forster, The Slave by Isaac Bashevis Singer and many of the novels of Hemingway, Doris Lessing, JG Ballard, Angela Carter, Graham Greene, Charles Bukowski, Iris Murdoch, Knut Hamsun, Karen Blixen, Elmore Leonard, Natalia Ginsburg, Erskine Caldwell, Jean Rhys, Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett. Every time this question comes up I think of another book.
Do you have a clear idea what your book is going to be about when you start writing?
Not at all. I usually start with a theme. When I began writing Walking with Ghosts I was mostly interested in experimenting with a second person narrative. I’d seen it used occasionally, usually in science-fiction writing, but never extensively, and I wondered why. It is not an easy form to work with and can easily topple over so that it feels as though you are manipulating the character like a puppet. But if it is used sensitively it can take you to the heart of a character. When I began The Chinese Girl I was mostly interested in masks, and that is what the novel ended up being about. Masks and Robert Johnson. I make no secret of the fact that I don’t write plots. I can’t get excited about how a character gets from a to b. I’m obsessed by ideas and by the vicissitudes of being and identity. In many ways the plots in my novels are simply skeletons on which I hang ideas and developments of character.
Do you use a wordprocessor?
Where do you get your ideas from?
Life, books, dreams, my family and friends, other writers, films, the theatre, drunken orgies and philosophical and religious texts.
What advice can you give to young unpublished authors?
Don’t listen to other writers. Plough your own furrow. Oh, yes, and make sure there’s nothing else you’d rather do. Being a writer has its compensations but you’ll be very lucky to make much money out of it, so make sure you’ve tried everything else first. And read. Read everything you can find.
Why did you write about a private eye?
It seemed to me when I began the Sam Turner series that everyone and his uncle was writing about cops. Not only that; they were glorifying cops. Humanizing them. I never met a policeman like Morse or Frost or Rebus or the rest, not in real life. It seemed to me at the time that all the policemen I had ever met were company men, uniforms, whether they were wearing one or not. I wanted to write about a truly good man, warts and all, who would be above everything else an individual. It seemed that the private eye was a better metaphor for the character I envisaged, and it also gave me the possibility of portraying the police as Keystone cops, which is how I usually think of them. Sorry, guys. I don’t mean it. I mean I don’t mean it all the time. May I kiss your gun, officer?
When did you first decide to write?
I don’t remember a time when I didn’t write. I was a quiet non-verbal child and always prefered to write rather than talk. But since my early teens I have written consciously, all forms, poetry, short story, and now the novel.
What was your first success?
I guess about the age of 12 I was paid to write a science fiction series for children. This was broadcast down the telephone line to help parents get their children off to sleep. Don’t know if it worked but it gave me some income to supplement the paper-round and helped me think that writing might provide a living one day.
What comes first – idea or character?
Always character. Character is everything. Character is destiny, and destiny is plot. Having said that, I do need a theme, however tenuous at first, or I don’t have the strength to begin.
Are your characters based on real people?
Not consciously. They may be amalgams of lots of different people. They may all be aspects of my self. I don’t know what they are. But they are not people I have met. They are metaphors.
Why did you choose to write for this genre?
I wanted to be published and the crime genre seemed to offer the possibilities of breadth. Think about the gap between, say, the novels of Agatha Christie and the character of Hannibal Lector, and you begin to see that within the crime genre you can do anything. There are no taboos.
Before your ‘big break’ how many hours a day did you spend writing?
Tuesday – 24 hours. Wednesday – 24 minutes. I never let a day go by without picking up a pen.
And now? I write mornings. The rest of the day I go out in the world.
Do you plan?
Only vaguely. I never know the end until I get there. Often for the first two thirds of a novel I will have no idea what it’s about.
How many drafts do you complete?
Three, sometimes four. I write and read, rewrite and reread until I can’t take any more. Then I know the novel is finished.
How has the Personal Computer helped your work?
Immensely. I never want to go back to a quill and a candle.
How long does the process of writing a novel take from the initial idea to final polished typescript?
At least one year. Sometimes longer.
What struck first for you, a publisher’s acceptance or being taken on by an agent?
I didn’t have an Agent for my first two novels. My first publisher, Mike Petty picked my first novel out of the slush pile.
As a successful author, what do you now know, that you wish you had known before you gained success?
I know you have to be lucky.
How can the beginning writer gain the edge when seeking publication?
You have to find a publisher who loves every word you write. It’s as simple as that.
Should securing the services of an agent be a priority or are publishers still willing to sift the proverbial slushpile for the next best seller?
Many agents are more reluctant than publishers to take on an unknown author. I would still aim for the slushpile.
How in depth is your research?
Depends. I don’t particularly like research. But if I need to I usually know where to go and can get very involved. I need to know what I’m writing about and be sure of my facts.
How did/do you handle rejection and how many (if any) did you have before your success?
I handle rejection philosophically. I must’ve had a million rejection slips in my time, but I didn’t take any of them seriously. The guy didn’t want what I’d written. OK, I’ll go away and write something he can’t refuse. Or I’ll say, screw you and send it to someone with taste.
How’s your spelling?
OK with a spell-checker.
Do you have your MS checked by a third party before sending it to your Publisher/agent?
Who chooses the book title?
What are you working on now?
A Sam Turner novel called The Meanest Flood. It’s about being swamped.
How do you organise your writing day?
I fall out of bed and write for several hours. Until I’m tired. Then I go for a bike ride, drink coffee, pretend I’m going to write some more that day, but I never do.
What are you reading now?
le Carre’s The Tailor of Panama.
What book do you wish you had written?
Several. Elmore Leonard’s Get Shorty comes to mind. Much better than the film.
The phrase ‘Write about what you know’ worries many beginning writers, what is your opinion?
It’s all you can do. What you know is yourself. The exiting thing about it is that you don’t know what it is you know about yourself until your memory and imagination is stimulated by writing about it. Stop worrying. If you want to be a writer, write. That’s what being a writer means.
Do you know the ending to your books before you get there?
What is your view on the Internet and the writer?
I use the internet as a resource. It saves me walking to the library. Not all the time, but often, and increasingly.
What is your opinion on the e-book?
I think it has a future, but not with literature, not with the novel.
Do you have any nuggets of advice for the prospective writer?
Don’t listen to other writers.
Next question, please.