Good writing gives us permission to feel; done well, it demands it from us.
In addition to your published books that have been rated quite well in reviews on Goodreads and Amazon, you’ve also written articles for various publications, the most significant being a personal piece about your late brother, written for “The Guardian” in March 2008. Death and loss of such a magnitude would certainly have an impact on how any writer expresses himself or herself, no matter if the end result was more dramatic or comedic. In the survey I asked you to complete before our interview, you’ve recalled a couple of books that inspired you as a child, if only by their memorable titles, “Firelight and Candlelight” (1968) and “Moonshine and Magic” (1968), both written by Elizabeth S. Bradburne, as well as the writing in Richard Bach’s “Illusions” (1977), and naturally the works of the world-renowned Rudyard Kipling. Later, your tastes appeared to follow the likes of detective novels by Raymond Chandler, spy thrillers by Len Deighton, and mysteries by Harlan Coben. How, would you say, your experiences with death and loss affected your preferences in the books you read and the types of stories you write?
I think that the experience of loss can give us more empathy for others and give depth and meaning to our lives. I strive for authenticity in my writing, particularly when writing emotional scenes, and I enjoy that in the work of others.
After I’d written about my brother’s illness and death, I felt more liberated as a writer, as if I’d gone to a place of vulnerability and raw honesty, and then emerged, changed. (Maybe that’s the hero’s journey again, in microcosm.) Much like my brother, I have a very dark sense of humour. Maybe some of that is a coping mechanism because we lost both our parents in our 20s, but I don’t think so. Humour helps us see life and ourselves differently, perhaps a little more objectively and hopefully more creatively. I don’t think my experiences affect my choice of writers directly – it’s always about the story or premise itself, and whether the characters speak to you.
Rather than “coping mechanism”, perhaps dark humor is more a component of a type of inner strength? How would you compare dark humor to optimism? Is either more resilient?
I think dark humour requires a type of objectivity, which is always helpful in a crisis or a tragedy. It seems to me that dark humour allows a transition from “Why me?” to “Why not me?” Life is often absurd, random and unjust, but that doesn’t detract from how amazing it can be. Humour (of any kind) can be a way of addressing imbalances of power or even just the feeling that we’re getting the shitty end of the stick.
During the First World War, when mechanised warfare and wholesale slaughter were spreading across the world like a plague, a small group of British soldiers stuck two fingers up to circumstance and started a satirical (and seditious) magazine called The Wipers Times. I see dark humour very much in that vein – we may not get out of here alive but we’ll have the last and knowing laugh! That could be construed as a type of inner strength.
Optimism, to me, is about seeing potential and being open to the possible becoming the probable. It could be construed as a form of altruism because it gives people hope and sometimes hope is enough to make a difference or at least change the quality of an experience in that moment. And to paraphrase Kevin Smith’s Loki in his mythological comedy “Dogma”, life is a series of moments.
I’m not sure that dark humour and optimism can really be compared. They seem to serve different functions but they both require resilience. Perhaps they are like binary stars, orbiting one another, resonating together to create a single song: Expect the best and prepare for the worst!
“Always look on the bright side of death, just before you draw that terminal breath…” It seems to me, with my American perception, that combining dark humor and optimism is quintessentially British. As ideas, it may not seem comparable, but you guys historically have done a pretty good job of combining them anyway. Maybe it’s something in the British character? Or is that an illusion us Americans have somehow convinced ourselves to believe?
I don’t think it’s uniquely British but it’s a strong element in our national psyche. I’d argue that it has its roots, at least in part, in a sense of fatalism that owes something to the class system. In US culture there is the American Dream, where anyone can make it if they work hard enough, regardless of whether that’s actually true or not. In the UK, social mobility isn’t seen as a reality for most people (and perception is pretty much everything!). Class dictates access to opportunity, your connections and social networks, education, and expectations in life. When you put all that together it’s not surprising that people expect to have to put up with circumstance and try to make the best of it, even as they lament their lot in life. When I came to write my spy thriller series I knew from the get-go that my protagonist, Thomas Bladen, would be a working-class spy at odds with the system he works to uphold.
What factors affected your tastes in writing?
I enjoy characters that have a measure of emotional authenticity. Good writing gives us permission to feel; done well, it demands it from us. I like writing that makes me feel and makes me think. Sometimes it’s about the dilemma; other times it’s about the concept – the ‘what if’.
With the exception of the article about my brother, and my US novel (looking for representation as we speak…!), I prefer to write about people who live different lives to me. Sometimes, as with Thomas Bladen, the character arrives fully formed and wants to tell me their story. That also happened with Jo in my children’s book, “Superhero Club” (2015), and the runaway Peter Mayhew in my short story, “The Silent Hills.”
I tend to major on dialogue and character, but it would be interesting to develop more descriptive writing. I’ve long thought that breaking my nose and significantly reducing my sense of smell has also meant that I’m less “sensory” on the page too. Inevitably, all writers are to some extent writing about themselves or through the filter of their own experiences.
A “US novel”… can you say something more about that?
“Scars & Stripes” is a very different animal to anything else I’ve written. It’s a “coming-of-age” novel, telling the story of twenty-something Alex and his American odyssey. In some respects, it’s a fictionalised version of my year in the US, back in the late 1980s. It’s a very British book in attitude (see my previous answer about optimism and dark humour!) but it’s takes place in London, New York and California. On one level it’s a twisted transatlantic romantic comedy; on another it’s an exploration of the male psyche and how we navigate truth, loss and grief. I think it would make a great movie as well as a great book, but I am a little biased!
My pitch is: “Tell Me on a Sunday” meets “High Fidelity”, with a soundtrack by Madonna.
(For the uninitiated, “Tell Me on a Sunday” was a hit musical and a TV movie, while “High Fidelity” was a 1995 romantic-comedy novel by Nick Hornby that became a movie in 2000. Madonna is a singer.)