Cornwall’s Spy Novelist – Derek Thompson, unbound by genre

At an archetypal level, we are all the heroes of our own adventures.

You were born in London during the swinging ’60s, raised as a veritable East End boy, and today you are a West Country writer. Along the way, you spent two decades in various data-oriented roles for the telecom giant BT, and when you left your job there as a Project Manager, you had already begun to write. Two years before leaving BT in 2007, you had your first book published, “The Little Book of Cynics”. It almost seems inspired by Paul Wilson’s “The Little Book of Calm” (1996), admittedly a work that I only heard about because it was lampooned in the September 2000 pilot episode of Dylan Moran’s comedy sitcom “Black Books”. 

Our inspiration for “The Little Book of Cynics” was comedic, but not from TV. I co-wrote an occasional satirical New Age magazine, As Above So Below, and LBOC evolved from there.  

 

Ah, the zine world… so you’ve taken part in that as well?

Yep. I’d penned an esoteric article for a British new age / alternative magazine and they asked me to make significant edits. When they received the newer version they promptly rejected it and, when I remonstrated, they said they only published articles from ‘luminaries’ (my word, not theirs!). I shared my disappointment with another writer, David French, and he replied, “Sod them; let’s start our own magazine.” And so we did. We wrote all the material, bar a couple of guest spots, for an occasional satirical New Age magazine that became As Above So Below. At its height, we were sold in eight shops and the mag very nearly appeared in a Woody Allen film as a background prop.

 

Eight shops is actually pretty good distribution for a zine. If had it appeared in the Woody Allen film, would the movie have had a big enough release for you to have been considered a ‘luminary’ by the magazine that rejected you?

Sadly not! As Above So Below was satirical so the new age movement in general never really embraced us, although all our outlets (which included comic stores, new age shops and London’s oldest occult bookshop championed the cause! On one cover we had a ‘typical’ grey alien sat in a café asking for: “Cow’s arse and chips, twice.”) The movie wasn’t one of Mr. Allen’s best, in my opinion.

 

Although later you published the “Spy Chaser” thriller series with Joffe Books, would it be safe to say that your style is strongly influenced by comedy?

Yep, humour has always been important in my writing. Many of the techniques of comedy writing can be employed in fiction – exaggeration, juxtaposition, call-backs, similarities and differences, etc. I’m a big fan of Raymond Chandler’s work, which has a rich vein of humour running through it.

 

Apparently James Bond’s creator Ian Fleming was a big fan of Chandler as well. Was there something there that became part of what moved you to start producing spy novels?

In my opinion, Chandler used dialogue (including internal dialogue) brilliantly to illustrate and distinguish characters. He created a very moral central character in Philip Marlowe who still manages to navigate an immoral and amoral world.

I found that sense of a reluctant hero compelling, and here the works of Len Deighton are also a strong influence on my work. The espionage world I write about is frequented by careerists, idiots, manipulators, and those who simply do and believe what they’re told – or need to believe it. Any author of spy fiction also owes a great debt to John le Carré, who showed us that heroes and anti-heroes appear in many guises.

Harlan Coben was another big influence with “Standpoint” (2015), my debut spy thriller. I loved Coben’s Myron Bolitar books and the way he uses an ensemble cast so brilliantly. I wondered how a disparate group of people might form and stay connected, despite – or perhaps because of – their personal histories and past interactions. By my fifth spy thriller, “Flashpoint” (2018), I hope I’ve answered that question to everyone’s satisfaction!

 

I noticed in the Amazon samples of your work that you use simile in much the same way that Chandler might have. How naturally does constructing similes come to you when you write?

I love writing similes and metaphors – it’s like painting with words! I think writing comedy helps because it often requires brevity and precision to create rhythm and get to the punchline.

 

Do you have a favorite funny simile and metaphor?

Here are two I’m fond of – from my debut thriller, “Standpoint”:

“But Karl was waiting, like a toddler gazing at an open packet of biscuits.”

“The magazine lowered like a drawbridge.”

 

Every Stone has a beginning, muses Thompson. (Photo via Derek Thompson.)

It appears that you and Thornton Sully had gotten together on or before 2010, around the time that “A Word with You Press” had gotten its start, and you’ve written quite a few articles both for AWwYP and on your blog, “Along the Write Lines”, that provide useful advice for starting writers. First, how did you and Thorn get to know one another, and second what was your vision of how you and he would collaborate? Did the end result meet your expectations?

Thorn and I “met” through a Craigslist ad, where fortunately neither of us was a scam artist. He was running a contest that led to the “Coffee Shop Chronicles” collection (2010). We clicked pretty much instantly, partly because he has lived in Europe and I spent a year living in the US, many years ago. There was no overall plan, other than to bounce ideas off one another and, along with Monika Spykerman and Diana Diehl, to bring his dream to fruition. The ethos and mission of A Word with You Press is “Putting gravitas on a lo-carb diet” and that has remained our guiding star.

 

Is the experience of travel important to good writing?

I think any experience that affects us is important for good writing. Travel increases our opportunities to hear new voices and, by extension, new stories. Travelling breaks our established routines and, hopefully, changes our mindset. It’s not the only way but it’s probably the one that people are most familiar with.

At an archetypal level, we are all the heroes of our own adventures. The renowned and sometimes controversial mythologist, Joseph Campbell, studied and codified the hero’s journey, which is often condensed to: 1. Separation. 2. Initiation. 3. Return. It’s a model used extensively in fiction, TV and cinema.

 

I’ve heard it said that even George Lucas was inspired to write Star Wars in part from Campbell’s analysis of saga writing and storytelling.

It certainly seems that way from the structure of the early movies. Even at a personal level, Campbell seems to sum up travel pretty well. We literally leave where we normally reside, we have experiences and then we return changed by the journey. Travel helps us look at the world differently, including the world of our own imagination.

Of course, we can also find inspiration by engaging in the communities around you (actual and virtual!), and by using various creative techniques. A single conversation, if we pay attention can be the starting point for a journey on the page. Everyone has stories in them and it’s up to us how we pan for gold.

 

What are some of the gold-bearing streams of story ideas that you currently want to prospect?

Although I’m working on a crime mystery at the moment, I’ve also been playing around with these ideas:

  1. A man who thinks he is travelling forward in his own timeline, but the truth is more complicated!
  2. A story told by one demon to another about why Hell is different now.
  3. A small-time con artist is sent to prison and faced with a dilemma he seemingly can’t escape.

 

What were some of the more memorable stories that came with the work on the “Coffee Shop Chronicles (Oh the Places I’ve Bean)”?

“Fired” by Kayla Roth is one story I really liked. It’s about a pivotal day and a small act of courage that leaves the door open to possibility. Kayla does something that I particularly enjoy with short fiction – she leaves me thinking: “And then what happens?”

“Café Zanzibar” by F.J. Dagg has a visceral quality to it that breathes on the page, poetically descriptive and “a moment in time.”

My third choice for this trip down caffeinated memory lane is “The Coffee Grinder” by Peggy R. Dobbs. Peggy’s story about a family and time and all the things we leave unsaid could be the story of any of us. It’s a tale of poignancy and regret, made all the more bittersweet because Peggy (1930-2013) is no longer with us, and we still miss her presence on the site.

 

It’s always difficult to lose the voice of a good storyteller. Of course, Thorn is back in Europe now. Do you have any new plans for collaborations in the offing?

Thorn and I regularly parry emails and occasionally banter over Skype. We also met in the flesh – clothed for modesty – when he came over to the UK to refresh friendships and embed new ones. A new collection of short fiction, showcasing the work of five authors whose contest entries have consistently impressed our readers and the judges, is in development. If time and space allow, we would love a second anthology along the lines of “Coffee Shop Chronicles”. And who wouldn’t love the idea of a Thorn-in-the-side podcast where he waxes lyrical about creative writing? I’d certainly join the guest list!

 

With all the ways of collaborating remotely, perhaps it’s possible that you’d be better as a co-host rather than a guest? Seems like radio shows and podcasts work better when there is someone else always around to riff off of…

That’s always a possibility. Back in the day, I used to do phone-in radio spots as a foreign correspondent for Earl Finkler’s Morning Show on KBRW in Barrow, Alaska. I’ve also given a couple of writing related interviews on local radio in the UK. Thorn and I seem to have a natural chemistry together. When we met in person it was like we’d come out of the same factory!

 

One comment

  1. Avatar
    Mike Stang says:

    Cheers to you, Derek. You are a constant surprise.
    Wishing you the very best in the future.
    Mike

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