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  • Robert Greene

    Tue, 09 Dec 2008 11:38

    Robert Greene is the author of The 48 Laws of Power and The Art of Seduction. He has a degree in Classical Studies and lives in Los Angeles. See his blog at powerseductionandwar.com. His next book will be The 50th Law, co-written with the rapper 50 Cent, to be published by Profile Books in 2008.

    Mark Thwaite: What gave you the idea for The 33 Strategies of War?

    Robert Greene: I am an enthusiastic student of Sun–tzu and other writers on war strategy such as von Clausewitz. I consider strategy a science or art that has far ranging relevance—to life, business, politics, etc. The classics on the subject such as Sun–tzu are very inspiring and thought–provoking, but they are a bit abstract. How could I apply their ideas to my life? The idea came to try to fill in this gap in the literature—to combine a rigorous study of strategy throughout the ages and from all cultures, and highlight these ideas with exciting examples from history. I wanted to show the reader, for example, what they could learn from the strategic genius of Napoleon and how to apply his ideas.

    MT: Your book is not just a business book but a lifestyle manual. Effectively you are suggesting that we accept the metaphor that life is war and then use the strategies of war to have a more successful life. Is that right?

    RG: Yes, you are right. I believe life consists of endless conflicts and battles, not just with others, but with ourselves. It may not be politically correct anymore, but I think there is something positive to be had from learning how to deal with conflict in a sane and rational manner. The child psychologist Jean Piaget made a similar point in analyzing children who always run away instead of learning how to handle the inevitable disagreements in life.

    MT: Don't you think that the idea that self-interest is our main motivating force is rather passe? We are co-operative creatures as much as we are competitive ones; hairless bonobos as much as we are hairless chimps!

    RG: No, I think it is this bonobo business that is horribly cliched and passe. I never state anywhere that self–interest is our primary motivating force. I don’t believe it and I didn’t write it. In the War book, I devote three chapters to how you must work together as a team in the most strategic and effective manner possible. My books are about power, and you will have no power in this world if you do not know how to lead a team and be a team-player.

    Second, I have one chapter in the Power book about the power of self–interest, but it is more about appealing to other people’s self–interest, than to constantly thinking of your own. I think this is a very valuable concept in the world today, where so many people seem incapable of getting outside themselves and thinking in terms of what other people want or need. Something as foolish as the Iraq invasion would not have taken place with a careful calibration of our own self–interest and that of the Iraqis. Instead, we Americans simply imposed our own values and needs on them, and tragedy ensued.

    So many things would work better in this world if people stopped reacting and acting emotionally and thought in terms of self–interest. If this is passé, I worry about our future.

    Anyway, I say no to the bonobo and chimp analogies.

    MT: How long did it take you to write your book?

    RG: Three years.

    MT: How much background research did you have to do? Or did you just read Machiavelli!?

    RG: What a laugh, just read Machiavelli! I consumed over 300 books on war, politics, and anything that had to do with strategy. I think if you read the book this is apparent. For instance, I did not want to do the usual superficial treatment of Sun–tzu, and so I consulted dozens of books on just The Art of War, many written by Chinese scholars. I had special texts translated for me. I am happy to report that several Sun-tzu scholars have complimented me on how I analyzed The Art of War.

    MT: How do you write Robert? Longhand or directly onto a computer, straight off or with lots and lots of editing?

    RG: I have been writing on a computer since 1987. The computer has actually saved my life. I could never write fast enough to keep up with the speed of my thoughts. The computer allows me to think and write at the same speed, then go back and endlessly edit what I have written. And I put almost everything through at least four or five drafts.

    MT: What do you do when you are not writing?

    RG: Worry about why I am not writing.

    MT: Did you have an idea in your mind of your "ideal" reader? Did you write specifically for them?

    RG: My ideal reader is Everyman and woman. I consciously try to make the books have as wide an appeal as possible. Much thought goes into this, and I cannot say I have succeeded, but I tried. For instance, the Power book has been translated into over 20 languages so it has international appeal. In America, it has been a huge success in the African–American community, as well as with those on Wall Street, and even artists and anarchists are fans of the books.

    MT: What are you working on now?

    RG: I am collaborating with the rapper 50 cent on a book about hustling, life, power.

    MT: Who is your favourite writer? What is/are your favourite book(s)?

    RG: My favorite writer is Dostoyevsky, and his novel The Possessed has had a huge influence on me. I would say in philosophy Nietzsche, and obviously Machiavelli. I am learning Russian now so I can read my favorite Russian writers in the original. There are too many books to mention here, because I read at least a book a week. I recently read several books of Roberto Calasso and I found them quite inspiring. I like farces and comedy—Gogol and Feydeau.

    MT: Do you have any tips for the aspiring writer!?

    RG: Persistence and confidence will go a long way. I suffered and toiled for some 15 years until I got my first break. It is important to never give up, if you believe in yourself. Going back to the self–interest concept, it is also important to think of your audience, not just yourself and what you want to say. Focus on the reader, thinking of how they will perceive your book. With such focus and persistence, you cannot fail.

    MT: Anything else you would like to say?

    RG: This is not a pro–war book. I am aghast at the mess in Iraq. It is a failure of strategy on the highest level. I make the point early on in the book that the ancient Greeks had two gods of war—Ares and Athena. Ares represented the aggressive, stupid and blood–thirsty side of war. Athena the rational and strategic side. I dedicated my book to the goddess Athena. It is really about elevating the rational in all aspects of life.

  • Miranda Miller

    Tue, 09 Dec 2008 11:38

    Miranda Miller has travelled widely and now lives in London. Loving Mephistopheles is her fifth novel. The others are: Under the Rainbow, Family, Before Natasha and Smiles and the Millennium. She has also published a book of short stories about Saudi Arabia, A Thousand and One Coffee Mornings, and a book about the effects of homelessness on women.

    Mark Thwaite: What gave you the idea for Loving Mephistopheles?

    Miranda Miller: The trigger for this novel was surviving cancer. Having been forced to face up to my own mortality, I wanted to write about immortality. All my novels start with an image, usually half glimpsed in the mysterious state between waking and sleeping. For this novel the image was an old man (George) sitting at a bar at Heathrow, waiting to meet a woman (Jenny). She is reflected in his glass of brandy as simultaneously young and old. In the final version I cut this scene but it remained in the back of my mind.

    I was trying to satirize the cult of youth and take it to its logical conclusion, which is that nobody who can afford to stay young will age. So science will catch up with mythology and science fiction. I also wanted to write, again, about homelessness and the widening gap between the rich and the poor. We all hate banks, don't we? The Metaphysical Bank seemed like a good name for a villainous power. I have lived in Italy where there is a Bank of the Holy Spirit.

    MT: How long did it take you to write it?

    MM: Nine years - far too long. Most of my novels have taken two to three years. I originally conceived of it as a trilogy: Loving Mephistopheles, Abbie in the Underworld and An Island in the Moon. I wrote the first and then discovered that I couldn't get it published. So I rewrote it, and still couldn't get it published. I started another novel but the characters and ideas, like Jenny, wouldn't die. I wrote Abbie in the Underworld anyway and began to think of it as a mad impossible enterprise that was great fun to write. I put it aside again and worked on another novel, but Jenny and Leo were still very much alive. Peter Owen had published my short stories about Saudi Arabia and I remembered that Antonia Owen shares my taste for literary fantasy. Eventually, I turned the two novels into one long novel and sent it to her.

    MT: Do you read your critics? Have you been pleased with the response to your novel? Have you learned anything from them?

    MM: I always read reviews of my books and I'm always interested to hear what readers think of them. With this one, 'strange' seems to be a recurring adjective. I don't think you can exactly learn from reviews. That suggests that you go off and tailor your next book to suit other people's taste, and of course you can't do that. Each novel demands to be written on its own terms.

    MT: The Faust myth obviously lies behind your story. When did you first come across it? Why do you think it has such a hold on you?

    MM: In 1996, I saw a wonderful RSC production of Goethe's Faust, in a vivid translation by Howard Brenton. Don Giovanni (another version of the same legend) is one of my favourite operas. I also admire Marlowe's Dr Faustus - I pinched Jenny's contract from that version. It is simply one of the great plots, infinitely rich and flexible. In a way it is strange that it has such a hold on me because I'm not religious and belief in the soul is central to the meaning of the traditional story. In this novel I have interpreted the bargain as being between youth, money and glamour and fear of death and aging and the poverty Jenny (briefly) chooses because she thinks her daughter is in danger.

    MT: Loving Mephistopheles is your fifth novel. Does writing them get easier!?

    MM: Not really, each novel feels like my first. The writing process itself becomes more addictive. I am now bereft if I'm not working on a novel and try not to have long gaps between books because even I find myself impossible to live with when I'm not writing.

    MT: What were the principal challenges you faced writing Loving Mephistopheles? How did you overcome them?

    MM: When I started writing Loving Mephistopheles I was on my own with my daughter Becky, then in her teens, and working full time selling advertising space. I tried getting up very early but most mornings I didn't manage it. So after about a year I bluffed and told my boss I had been offered another job and would only be able to stay if he let me start at 11 each morning. It worked! Then I wrote from about 8 to 10 each morning before I went to work. Apart from the practical and financial challenges of spending years on a project, this is the most ambitious novel I've attempted. As I said before, it went through many drafts and rejections. I wanted to write in a more imaginative way and also wanted Jenny, Leo and the others to be psychologically believable. Of all my books so far, this was the most difficult to write. But even when writing is hard, I enjoy it immensely.

    MT: How do you write? Longhand or directly onto a computer, straight off or with lots and lots of editing?

    MM:I write straight onto a computer, in the morning, in my pyjamas. Writing belongs more to the sleeping than the waking world, so I try not to surrender myself to the day until I've finished. I cut off the phone and try not to look at my emails. I don't edit much at first but try to finish the first draft as quickly as possible, often leaving gaps and notes to myself to rewrite passages later.

    MT: What do you do when you are not writing?

    MM: I read; listen to music; talk to my daughter and friends; go to the cinema, theatre, galleries and museums; go for long walks around London, which I'm still discovering after all these years.

    MT: Did you have an idea in your mind of your "ideal" reader? Did you write specifically for them?

    MM: No, I've never imagined an ideal reader although I have gradually become more aware that my novels are (I hope) going to be read and that I want them to be accessible. I don't show my novels to anyone until I think they're finished.

    MT: What are you working on now?

    MM: I'm writing a novel called Nina in Utopia, set in London now and in the 1850s. There is a fantasy element and I'm trying to explore changing ideas about love and gender and madness.

    MT: Who is your favourite writer? What is/are your favourite book(s)?

    MM: Well, Mark, you said you liked long answers!

    I was a solitary London child (the youngest of four children and the only girl) growing up in a bookish and competitive family. I loved fairy tales, legends, mythology, Narnia, Lewis Carroll and E Nesbit's magical adventures. An aunt, thinking I suppose that I should get out more, sent me Swallows and Amazons which I found wildly improbable. Why would children go out on boats alone? Why would they want to?

    I graduated to Tolkien and Mervyn Peake. P.G. Wodehouse is the first 'grown up' author I remember enjoying (he isn't, of course, which is the secret of his appeal). In my early teens I loved Jane Austen and the Brontes. If I had to choose a favourite novelist it would be Dostoevsky. The Idiot, which I've been re-reading for 40 years, is the most powerful, vital, intense and astonishing novel I know. I love novels that are unpredictable and Dostoyevsky always surprises me. Another writer I admire, who I think is underrated, is John Cowper Powys. His characters have a rich and complex inner life. Until I was 17 (and realised I was no good) I wanted to act. My father loved the theatre and we went a lot. I read a lot of plays - Shakespeare, Ibsen, Shaw, Chekhov and Pinter, all of whom I was lucky enough to see performed. This early love of theatre influenced me, I enjoy writing dialogue and conceive of my novels in terms of scenes.

    Although, as you will have gathered, realism is not really my thing, I hugely admire Zola and Balzac, who were brutally honest at a time when English authors had to pussyfoot around sex and create 'nice' heroes and heroines . As I get older I enjoy reading Henry James more and more. I thought Colm Toibin's The Master was a brilliant novel, capturing his voice without being a pastiche.

    A list of novels that have meant a lot to me would have to include The Tin Drum, The Sea, The Sea, Henderson the Rain King, The Handmaid's Tale and Midnight's Children. When I was interviewed after my first novel was published, in 1978, I was asked if I thought the novel was dying. I didn't think so then; it's still alive and well nearly thirty years later and will be as long as people need storoes, which will be forever. Most recently Beyond Black, The Echo Maker and The Inheritance of Loss have all moved me deeply.

    MT: Do you have any tips for the aspiring writer!?

    MM: Lots of people will tell you it's impossible to get published but keep going until you finish that first book. Read voraciously and widely. Writing is lonely but take advantage of the many websites like this one that have made it easier to connect with other people. I've recently become involved with The Literary Consultancy's Mentoring scheme, which offers practical support to new writers.

    MT: Anything else you would like to say?

    MM: Just: thanks Mark.

  • Stephen O'Shea

    Tue, 09 Dec 2008 11:38

    Stephen O’Shea is a bestselling writer and historian. He freelanced in Paris for over a decade (for magazines like Harper's Bazaar and Mirabella), was Variety's film critic there in the mid 1990s, and before that senior articles editor for American Elle. His books include Back to the Front, The Perfect Heresy and Sea of Faith. He lives in Rhode Island with his wife and chidren.

    Mark Thwaite: What gave you the idea for Sea of Faith?

    Stephen O'Shea: Two answers to this: on my work for The Perfect Heresy about the Cathars, I was brought closer to the shores of the Mediterranean and closer to the world of al-Andalus. There were tantalizing connections between the medieval Muslim world of Spain and Languedoc that have never really gone beyond the stage of rumor. My curiosity was piqued so I began traveling around the Med, in search of the fault lines between medieval Christendom and medieval Islam. Secondly, what finally got me off the fence, what finally gave shape to the book in my mind was the visit of Pope John Paul II to Damascus in the spring of 2001. Almost all the press backgrounder articles about Christianity and Islam dealt with one thing alone: the Crusades. I was thunderstruck. Had we in the West not just been bombing Serbia and Kosovo amidst handwringing articles about the irreconcilability of Islam and the West? Had no reporter at the Seville World Fair in 1992 noticed that the bell tower of that city's cathedral was, in fact, a minaret? Had we forgotten so quickly? So I realized that there was a huge gap in our historical memory, that the Crusades occupied our historical imagination to the detriment of all the other great interactions between the faiths all around the Mediterranean.

    MT: Islam and Christianity seem to have been constantly at war, but is the "hidden political economy" of your book the fact that moments of peace have happened plenty of times before and can certainly happen again?

    SO: There was a lot of war, both holy and unholy, but for the most part there was a watchful, peaceful coexistence. Muslim and Christian polities had to be neighbors, had to trade and, in some instances, share the same country and city. Wars make for more stirring historical reading, and in many places, set off great religious and social changes, but it should be remembered that peace, or at least the absence of war, was the norm -- even in such a feral period at the Middle Ages. There is absolutely nothing inevitable about a so-called "clash of civilizations." East met West, intermarried, intertwined.

    MT: How long did it take you to write your book?

    SO: Writing the book took about two years. There were four or so years of research and travel prior to the final sit-down and write period.

    MT: How much research do you have to do Stephen? Do you relish the research or are you always impatient to get down to the actual writing process itself?

    SO: Research, for me, is of two varieties: reading and travel. Both I enjoy immensely. I usually read bulimically, scouring notes and bibliographies for further reading. This necessitates travel to major libraries and long nights in the stacks. I enjoy it. It's less research than learning. You could, of course, spend your whole life researching any given area, but as a professional writer I have a sense of when I have a grasp of a period, enough information to shape a narrative without sacrificing accuracy and without skating over the historiographical controversies (there are ALWAYS arguments among historians). As for the travel, I have a sort of superstitious belief that seeing something -- a landscape, a monument, an old city, whatever -- aids a writer to make his or her prose come alive. Sometimes a trip of a week might yield just the right subordinate clause about the look of a place or the color of a rock -- the trick is to make a distant and disappeared past exist somehow in the present for the reader. Yes I am impatient to get down to writing, so I write while researching and traveling. Series of paragraphs, not chapters. And these paragraphs usually get trashed when I finally sit down to write the book on the computer.

    MT: How do you write? Longhand or directly onto a computer, straight off or with lots and lots of editing?

    SO: I write directly into a computer, rewrite, print out, correct with a pencil, rewrite. It sounds tedious, but it's not. Once you're truly into your subject, no matter what you do -- watch a football game, go for a walk -- is somehow tied up with your subject and gives you ideas.

    MT: What were the principle challenges of writing Sea of Faith and how did you overcome them?

    SO: The challenge was to make the subject mine, that is, to take all the information and make it into a narrative that I think would hold the reader. i think the main failing of much non-fiction is a certain repetition of style and in ordering events. If writers would just sit back for a few days and figure out exactly how they can present the material in a different or at least a fresh manner, we'd save ourselves a lot of glazed eyes. And writers of non-fiction for a general educated public should always remember that they do not have a captive audience (ie, students assigned their text). that being said, one should avoid the flashy and the gimmicky, for that, I think, is a hindrance to an understanidng of history.

    MT: Your book has been out for a little while now: what have you learned most from the feedback?

    SO: People, of all backgrounds, have told me that they weren't taught this history -- and why not? there is a thirst out there for information, not opinion. especially in the current context of islam and the west, people are bemoaning a general lack of basic knowledge of the background to the present day situation.

    MT: What do you do when you are not writing?

    SO: I read a lot, both fiction and non-fiction. I travel and try to improve language skills. And I do book reviews, journalism, even script doctoring -- and some translations.

    MT: Did you have an idea in your mind of your "ideal" reader? Did you write specifically for them?

    SO: I hate to say it, but my ideal reader is me. I write what I would like to read.

    MT: What are you working on now?

    SO: With some writer pals, I am compiling an anthology of anti-patriotic writings from around the world. And I'm researching a project that deals tangentially with the medieval Inquisition.

    MT: Who is your favourite writer? What is/are your favourite book(s)?

    SO: Writers I have read and reread; Saki, Graham Greene, Flaubert. Among the living, I admire Alice Munro immensely. And for non-fiction I tip my hat to William Dalrymple.

    MT: Do you have any tips for the aspiring writer!? Anything else you would like to say?

    SO: For aspiring writers: all writing is good. Do journalism for a while, it's good for you. And remember that everyone needs an editor. One last thing; if a paragraph is not working, you should delete the metaphor or image that you are most fond of, and it will work.

  • Lesley Thomson

    Tue, 09 Dec 2008 11:38

    Born in 1958 and brought up in Hammersmith, Lesley Thomson graduated in 1981. She lived in Australia after completing her degree. To support her writing - and sometimes to avoid writing - Lesley has worked in many different places: a factory producing plastic make-up display stands (that operated far beyond the realms of health and safety), an estate agents and an underground station newsagent in Sydney. She was a senior manager in one of the first Internet companies and was the only person she knew with an email address. Her first novel, Seven Miles From Sydney (1987), was in the City Limits top ten best books for that year. In 1990, Lesley worked with Sue Johnston on her semi-autobiographical book, Hold On To The Messy Times. In 2005, an extract of A Kind of Vanishing was included in The Brighton Book with pieces by Jeanette Winterson, Nigella Lawson and Louis de Bernieres. In 2006, Lesley completed an MA in English Literature and finished A Kind of Vanishing.

    Mark Thwaite: What gave you the idea for A Kind of Vanishing?

    Lesley Thomson: It’s difficult to answer this without throwing too much light onto the plot and giving away the story which I am keen not to do! But the germ of the idea grew ten years ago when I listened to Sandra Brown on Women’s Hour talking about her book: Where There Is Evil . This is about the disappearance of twelve year old Moira Anderson in Glasgow in 1957. I am loathe to explain her particular interest in the case as it is a bit of a giveaway! But I can recommend her book. Moira is still officially listed as missing and Sandra Brown, who got the case reopened in the nineties, is still campaigning for the truth of what happened to her to be revealed. Last year she was awarded an OBE for her work for child protection in Scotland and she has set up the Moira Anderson Foundation – a charity that helps children and families affected by child sexual abuse.

    As well as this a few years later I heard a package on You and Yours (also Radio Four!) about helping primary school children deal with their grief over the death of a classmate. The bit that interested me was the point made that some children may not have liked the child who has died and would need support in dealing with their less comfortable feelings about the death. This last idea took root in my imagination and I wanted to explore it.

    MT: Your book is about the rawest of subjects -- a child's disappearance. What drew you to want to investigate such a harrowing subject?

    LT: One of the worst things that can happen to a person is the death of their child. For parents whose children are murdered there is often a period of time when they are missing before the body is discovered. I wondered what it would be like for parents to have a child go missing and hear no more about them. We see these ‘stories’ in the press from time to time (and one is of course in the news at the moment) and then they fade from the front pages. But what happens to the people involved? How do they continue with their lives in the face of the terrible uncertainty and unsolved mystery that leaves room for the imagination to fill? I wanted to know.

    MT: You have set your book back in 1968 on the day that Kennedy was shot -- why the historical setting?

    LT: 1968 was a critical year for me. I was ten that year became properly aware of the outside world when Martin Luther King was shot. I heard the news on the radio while eating Shreddies! This was followed only weeks later by the assassination of RFK. I remember reading the paper and listening to the news with interest. These two incidents influenced my enduring interest in US politics. In my late teens I read about the civil rights movement and later still a considerable amount on the Kennedys.

    In A Kind of Vanishing I used the killing Robert Kennedy as a symbol of lost hope and potential that affected the whole world: it was the end of an era. I contrasted his abrupt ‘absence’ with the loss of a young working class girl in a little village in the UK: literally the personal and the political. I also wanted to show the role of the media even then. The first event knocked the other out of the headlines. Years later the world still remembers Robert Kennedy’s shooting, but Alice Howland is long forgotten. Today Madeleine McCann’s parents understand the need for publicity only too well, and have worked hard to ensure her disappearance is getting sustained global attention. Part of Kath Howland’s learning process over the decades is when she recognises her comparative naivety and gullibility in the 1960’s both around class and the media. She thinks of this as another way in which she failed her child.

    MT: How long did it take you to write your book?

    LT: Actual writing time was probably about a year, but I was working while I wrote A Kind of Vanishing and so didn’t work on it consistently. I didn’t touch it for one year altogether because my work was so full on and in addition I was supporting my Mum who had Parkinson’s. However all this time the story was continually taking shape in my mind and being nourished and reshaped by my life and by what I was reading and thinking.

    MT: How much background research did you do?

    LT: I researched into the history of the Tide Mills, but besides this did very little reading for the story itself. It grew from my existing knowledge. I have read so much about the Kennedy family and their role in US politics that I needed only to check on dates and times, which involved minimal work. Aside from this I relied heavily on intuition. I have experienced the death of loved ones, so could this to imagine the trauma of losing a child. Although unless you have actually had this happen, there is no way you can truly describe how it is. In my early twenties I met a couple whose son had been killed in a road accident. He was their only child and I was terribly moved that they had lost the active role of being parents along with their boy. I am an only child and I became very aware of my own personal responsibility to keep safe for my parents’ sake.

    I read Sandra Brown’s book after hearing her on the radio, but I wouldn’t call this research as I wasn’t about to write a novel on the subject at that point.

    MT: How do you write Lesley? Longhand or directly onto a computer, straight off or with lots and lots of editing?

    LT: I do some of all of the above. First sketches are scribbled in a notebook. I am obsessed with notebooks and cannot resist buying them. While the proverbial blank page on my laptop scares me into light housework, a clean sheet on a notebook presents an exciting mouth-watering prospect to me. I do the actual writing on my laptop, rarely referring to my initial hand-scrawled notes. I prefer a laptop to a computer as I can then write anywhere. Although once the story is underway and the panic has subsided I usually end up at my desk. I write fast and furiously and then revisit the text at a slower pace and rewrite some of it. Some chapters simply flow from my fingers and need little reworking.

    MT: What do you do when you are not writing?

    LT: I work to earn money as a copywriter and business development manager. I read - a wide variety of fiction and non fiction. I see my friends and family; I sit about thinking of the next story and fretting I’m not getting on with it. I don’t decorate my house, which needs it, nor do I do very much housework.

    MT: Did you have an idea in your mind of your "ideal" reader? Did you write specifically for them?

    LT: I don’t have an ideal reader – unless you count someone who reads this story in one sitting – which every book cries out for – and then tells their friends to buy it and do the same. Any reader is an ideal reader. I tried to write the kind of book I like to read myself. This is one you don’t want to put down and look forward to picking up again. I do write for an audience and see writing as a way of being in touch with people and beginning a dialogue. I only consider my characters to have come properly ‘alive’ when the book is published and has readers who might give them life.

    MT: What are you working on now?

    LT: A novel with the working title The Unwilling Detective about the daughter of a dead Chief Inspector who decides to investigate a murder that her father never solved. The connection with A Kind of Vanishing is place. This new story takes place in St Peter’s Square – where the Ramsays live. They make a brief appearance.

    MT: Who is your favourite writer? What is/are your favourite book(s)?

    LT: I don’t have a favourite writer, I read so much that I am always finding new writers who influence me. But Virginia Woolf remains consistently at the top of my chart. In a very loose way A Kind of Vanishing is a reworking of To The Lighthouse. Woolf’s story centres around the Ramsay family presided over by Mrs Ramsay, a powerful matriarch who dies halfway through the novel. She protects her family and those who come in touch with it – a preserver of an already vanishing world. Isabel Ramsay is in some ways the antithesis to the first Mrs Ramsay who continually absents herself from her family with headaches, but is quietly working to preserve her family from shame or harm. Another influence for this book and a writer I have liked since I was a student is E.M. Forster. The White House owes a lot to Howards End. Besides this I read loads of crime fiction and novel owes a big debt to the long hot summer of 1976 in A Fatal Inversion by Barbara Vine.

    MT: Do you have any tips for the aspiring writer!?

    LT: Don’t talk about writing or wait for inspiration just get on with it. It’s hard work, be prepared to write rubbish initially, but keep going. Be critical of what you write, revisit it and be ready to toss out bits you think are great if others don’t think they work.

    I don’t think about what sells in a conscious way, I write what matters to me and hope that this amounts to the same thing because it might matter to others too. As I said earlier, I write the kind of story I want to read. Finally, remember that loads of people have been writing for years so read continually as it will enrich your life along with your writing.

    MT: Anything else you would like to say?

    LT: I want to know what readers think of A Kind of Vanishing. I wrote it for you – so go to my website at lesleythomson.co.uk and write and tell me!

  • Simon Beckett

    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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