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Tue, 09 Dec 2008 11:38
Simon Beckett is a freelance journalist and writes for national newspapers and colour supplements. The Chemistry of Death is his fifth novel, Written in Bone his sixth. He is married and lives in Sheffield.
Mark Thwaite: What gave you the idea for Written in Bone?
Simon Beckett: Years ago I'd read about so-called 'spontaneous human combustion' where the victims are almost completely incinerated, but without anything else nearby them being burned. It had always intrigued me, and I liked the idea of my main character, David Hunter being confronted with this apparently inexplicable phenomenon. That's obviously only the starting point, but I had a very clear image of him being confronted with these macabre remains in a windswept and isolated cottage. And I decided to set it in the Outer Hebrides because I've visited several Scottish islands and find them hugely atmospheric, especially in winter. As a writer, I knew I could use that.
MT: How long did it take you to write it?
SB: I'm not the fastest writer, I'm afraid. It took me about a year before I was happy with it. As the sequel to The Chemistry of Death I didn't want to let readers down, so I spent a lot of time planning Written in Bone in advance.
MT: What makes you want to write crime thrillers Simon? What attracts you to the genre?
SB: I suppose I'm fascinated by the darker side of human nature that you can explore through crime fiction. People have called the Hunter novels 'mysteries', but I just set out to write stories that can grip the reader, both in terms of plot and character. I've always been interested in psychology, so I like exploring that in my books as well. For me, looking at why people behave the way they do, and what's made them reach the stage where they're prepared to do these things, is as important as the forensic aspect. And crime fiction allows you to delve into that side of things.
MT: Your previous book was The Chemistry of Death. Tell us a little about it Simon.
SB: The idea came to me after I'd visited a place called the Body Farm (or the Outdoor Anthropology Research Facility to give it its correct name) in Tennessee as part of an magazine article I was writing. It's a remarkable place and the only one of its kind in the world, because it uses real human cadavers to research decomposition. The idea is to use that knowledge to help police determine things like time-since death when a body is found. It's set on a couple of acres of wooded hillside, and there can be around thirty or so bodies there at any one time, in various stages of decomposition.
Obviously, visiting there was a very strange experience. But the work they do is immensely valuable, and when I came away I knew I wanted to use what I'd seen in a novel somehow. Eventually, I developed the character of David Hunter, a British forensic anthropologist who trained at the Body Farm but who works in the UK. At the start of The Chemistry of Death, he's turned his back on his former career to become a doctor after a devastating personal tragedy. But when a series of sadistic murders take place in the norfolk village he's retreated to, he's forced to use his old skills again to help stop the killer.
MT: How do you write? Longhand or directly onto a computer, straight off or with lots and lots of editing?
SB: My handwriting's so bad I doubt I could read it myself. No, I write directly onto the computer, and then do lots and lots of editing. I know purists say longhand is best, but if you re-write and edit as much as I do, then word processors really are a Godsend. So is Spellcheck, come to that.
MT: What were the principle challenges of writing Written in Bone? Was it easier to write than your debut?
SB: You might think it would be, since I'd already got the main character worked out. But I found it harder. There was no real pressure when I wrote The Chemistry of Death, as I didn't have a publishing deal at the time. I was working as a freelance journalist and more or less wrote it in-between commissions. As a journalist I'm used to pressure and deadlines, but I'd never written a sequel before. I was very conscious of the need not to let readers down who'd enjoyed the first novel, but at the same time I didn't want to write the same book again. So it was a balancing act of including the familiar elements that peoiple would expect - Hunter, forensics, plot twists, surprises, and so on - but give it something fresh as well. Hopefully I succeeded.
MT: What do you do when you are not writing?
SB: Feel guilty, usually. But I think that's a fairly common failing for writers - if they're not working they think they should be. I was asked once if writing was a passion, but I think 'compulsion' is probably nearer the mark. Still, I admit I enjoy unwinding in the evening with a meal and glass of wine. I used to play in a band as a percussionist until recently, but the congas and the rest of my gear is in storage at the moment.
MT: Did you have an idea in your mind of your "ideal" reader? Did you write specifically for them?
SB: Not really, I was pleased that The Chemistry of Death seemed to appeal to a lot of different people - male and female, young and old. And even quite a few who didn't usually read crime fiction. I just try to tell a good story, with interesting characters that people will become involved with, rather than aim for any specific group.
MT: What are you working on now?
SB: I'm working on my next novel, but I'm afraid I don't like talking about work in progress. I supose I don't like temtping providence...
MT: Who is your favourite writer? What is/are your favourite book(s)?
SB: That's a tricky one. I've quite a few favourites. But I suppose if I had to pick one, I'd say Peter O'Donnell, the creater of Modesty Blaise. It's a terrific series - great characters, well written, and pure entertainment. I'd recommend any of the books in it, but my favourite is A Taste for Death.
MT: Do you have any tips for the aspiring writer!?
SB: Keep at it, don't be disillusioned, and try to develop a thick skin.
MT: Anything else you would like to say?
SB: Just thanks to people for reading, and hope they enjoy Written in Bone.
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