the joy... of writing
What drives me to write?
When a brilliant teacher taught me the rudiments of writing grammatical, simple, good English (it didn’t happen until I was fifteen) I understood that, in one way or another, writing would be my life and my living. By pure chance (landing a BBC journalist traineeship), it began in radio and television. Since then, I’ve written TV scripts, screenplays and history, and now novels.
I don’t fully understand where the urge to write comes from - all too often, when it’s hard, it seems masochistic. Would I go on doing it if publishers and broadcasters weren’t paying me and giving me deadlines? How nice it would be if that question were never to arise...
Now I am writing thrillers, where do I get my plot ideas?
Before answering that, why write fiction at all? And why thrillers? (Though I dispute that term. How is the great Le Carré categorised in bookshops under crime or thriller? He writes novels. As I aspire to.) Well, I always felt I wanted to, but I kept on getting distracted. I’ve now written three with lots more ideas for the future.
The genesis of ideas is mysterious. A Time to Lie began with a simple proposition. I’m not sure where it came from but I thought what if a former friend - and flatmate in their youth - of a newish Prime Minister sidles up to him at a moment of celebration, engages him in conversation and whispers in his ear a question composed of four simple words. “Did we kill her?” Even better, what if that person is a senior special adviser at the heart of government. The book then creates what I hope is a believable scenario which underlies that appalling question.
There are events and characters that can inspire. A Secret Worth Killing For began with someone I once made a film about who met a dreadful fate in the Irish troubles. One or two other characters are also initially inspired by people I’d known but who, like the main protagonist, then become fictional characters transplanted to a different time period.
The Inquiry began with three simple thoughts. Firstly, that a judicial inquiry might be an intriguing setting for a thriller. Secondly, I had a particular idea of what my Inquiry would inquire into. Thirdly that I had a key character in my mind, who ended up as Sara Shah, that I wanted to explore. I then had to start injecting mayhem, mystery and death...
How do I work up my characters?
They come alongside the story and can begin with someone, or a combination of people, I know. Then I hope to make them unrecognisable as they take on their fictional identity. The characters grow with the writing of them. It’s a curious process and I don’t pretend fully to understand it. I then test them with people - for example, with Sara Shah, I was greatly helped by several Muslim women and had much support from a fellow author, Ayisha Malik.
How is writing fiction different from the other books I’ve written?
I’ve found writing fiction to be the greatest creative challenge of my life. Writing non-fiction is essentially about understanding real people whom you can study through writings, diaries and recollections, and and working out the best way to sequence and order the existing facts and your interpretation of their significance. With fiction, you have a terrifying blank page. Everything is possible - and sometimes feels impossible. It’s nice when things fall into place, but this is all too rare - most writing comes about because I get up every morning, sit down to write and don't allow myself to get up until I've completed at least a thousand words!
Which authors do I most admire?
The history book that most inspired me is John Lukacs’s brilliant The Duel about the epic battle of wits between Churchill and Hitler in 1940... though Anthony Beevor’s Stalingrad is every bit as extraordinary. In fiction, I admire too many novelists to want to pick one out but for contemporary novels, whose books would I want to read so urgently that I’d buy the hardback rather than await the paperback? That applies to Le Carré, Robert Harris, William Boyd, Colm Toibin, Jonathan Franzen, Alan Judd, Mick Herron...
It’s unusual to have female characters leading a thriller. Why have I chosen to do this?
Aren’t women more interesting! Though, after my first two novels I was told by my publisher that it was time to develop a male protagonist - which I have done for A Time to Lie.
What do I find most challenging about writing?
The sheer, hard graft. Was it Kingsley Amis who said that talent was defined by the attachment of the writer’s backside to his seat? And, on top of that, always wondering whether your first readers, your editor in particular, will cheer or groan when they reach the final page.