Thursday, 25 February 2010

Enough to put your back up

Is it just me or do other people experience uncanny problems with their computers? You could say I only notice when problems occur on the odd days when I urgently need my set up to work, and don't register other glitches that happen...
It's over 2 years since my publisher asked for the final MS of CUT SHORT. That was the evening my hard disc failed. Bad timing.
Last week my publisher wanted the final changes for ROAD CLOSED. I typed out what was wanted, ready to send. I had never had a problem with internet access but at that exact moment, my connection packed up . Bad timing.
Can this be coincidence? Yes, of course I know it is, but I can't help feeling, "As flies to wanton boys are we to the gremlins in our computers..." (to paraphrase Lear, badly – sorry!)
With my awareness of potential risks lurking around every corner (I do write crime fiction!) I have an automatic weekly back up on my PC. I save my work daily on a PC, netbook and memory stick. And yes, I have my back up for internet access. If all else fails, there's always my dongle.
But where's the back up for ME when I feel like packing up and switching off?
It's enough to put anyone's back up.
Leigh Russell


Boredom is so yesterday.

With the advances in technology we've seen in the last decade it's difficult to see how anyone could ever be stuck for something to read, watch or listen to.

Before downloading and burning music I recall the days of investing in an album. Anticipating it, saving for it, buying it, taking it home and finally listening to it. Then, if it was a turkey, you were financially obliged to give it several more cracks of the whip before you either fell in love with it or REALLY knew it was a turkey. Do I miss those days? Hell, no.

I'd much rather have choice. In 2010 some exciting new release is barely announced before it's instantly available to our fingertips/mouse. Take for example the new Tim Burton 'Alice In Wonderland' that will be released on dvd only three months after its (limited) cinema release.

We can have everything we want in a much shorter space of time but one thing we have to remember is that the same amount of human sweat and tears goes into every album, movie and book that we buy or download. This isn't a tirade about piracy. That's being debated ad nauseum elsewhere. I'm just suggesting it's something that's becoming less and less important in terms of people's appreciation.

Having worked in TV production I know how many people and how many hours are spent making only minutes of entertainment. I've now experienced the process behind the publication of a book so when I'm loitering in Waterstones to see how many copies of STOP ME have been bought I certainly view all the other titles around it differently.

Books are still as thought-provoking and relevant as they've always been but nowadays we don't allow them to possess us to the same degree because we're always after the next bit of ephemeral entertainment. Next! I'm just as guilty. The pace of the 21st Century expects it of me etc etc.

The problem is, we all know that there's this wealth of obtainable material out there and we worry that we might be missing out on something better. I say, enjoy the books, music and movies you really hanker for...properly. Take them in and let them make you think.

Your TV may have 400 channels but following that relentless period of channel hopping, chances are you always come back to the small handful that are of any quality.


Wednesday, 24 February 2010

It's a hard life... !

In case you thought I was doing nothing but work at my writing, I thought I'd share a few photos taken when I was out and about this week. Here you can see me hard at work giving a talk to a book club. Fortunately they loved CUT SHORT. I met one of them at a book signing last year, and they kindly invited me to go and talk to them. They were really welcoming, and very interesting. The group includes two speech therapists, an experienced social worker and teachers - all very relevant to CUT SHORT

On Saturday I signed at the Get Writing Conference at Hatfield University. I wasn't able to run a workshop, as I had a Very Important Meeting with my publisher that morning (!) but I did go along to sign at lunch time. The photo shows me with Bibiophile Helen. (We haven't morphed into pixies - I'm holding a poster.) In her review, Helen described CUT SHORT as 'a thoroughly gripping, sprint paced, creepy thriller' which she 'couldn't put down.'

Finally, here's a photo sent to me by one of the colleges where I gave a talk before Christmas. The students described CUT SHORT as 'gripping' and 'a good read'.

So it's not all head down writing. I do get out and about and meet people, which is great fun.
If you'd like a visit to your book club, writers circle, school, college or library, feel free to contact me. You can leave a comment here, send a message via the contact page on or use the email on my profile on
Leigh Russell

Monday, 22 February 2010

The Ten Best British Thrillers....

by Matt Lynn

For the Headline crime blog, I've been compiling a list of the 10 best British thrillers of all time.

What are they? Well here's the first three. But for the rest of the list, head over to Crime Files....

One: The Prisoner of Zenda by Anthony Hope: Even though it was published in 1894, Anthony Hope’s The Prisoner of Zenda remains as exciting as the day it first rolled off the presses. The story of a rather foppish young Englishman called Rudolf Rassendyll caught up in the palace and political intrigue of the imaginary state of Ruritania, it has conspiracies, mysteries and femme fatales galore. Much of the story admittedly may seem antique to modern readers – and it has more than a touch of the ripping yarn about it – but this book is the start of the action adventure genre. It tears off page one at a hundred miles an hour, and speeds up from there. After this book, thrillers had to be genuinely thrilling.

Two: The 39 Steps by John Buchan: It’s an obvious choice, but The 39 Steps is still the template for any thriller writer. It has all the ingredients to cook up a great adventure story: an ordinary hero plunged into a global conspiracy: a fantastic chase sequence: and a puzzle that has to be cracked to save the nation. Dan Brown would kill for one of the Buchan’s riddles. And the book is written with an urgency and pace that still makes it seem very modern. Written in 1915, it gives the reader an insight into how the First World War was viewed by the people living through it.

Three: Journey Into Fear by Eric Ambler: For me, Eric Ambler was really the writer who lifted the spy genre out of pot-boiler fiction, and up to a whole new level. He was a brilliant writer, who also explored the great themes of his day: think George Orwell, but writing adventure stories. Journey Into Fear is his most gripping book, a fantastic story of a fraught voyage from Turkey. The hero is cooped up on a ship, chased by menacing Nazi spies. It captures the tension of the first year of World War Two. It was written in 1940 and has a sense of brooding menace of that year, when the outcome of that war was still very much in doubt, and many people though they were facing decades of the Nazis dominating Europe.

Any suggestions for other books that should be on the list?

I have a cunning plan!

Today I am going to sit down and do something I have never previously attempted as a writer of fiction: I'm going to try to plan a book, plot-by-plot, chapter-by-chapter.

In my experience, writers tend to divide into planners, who know exactly what is going to happen on every page of their new book before they have written the first line, and wingers (so-called because they wing it), who proceed with nothing more to guide them than the faith that a good idea will come along whenever they need it.

James Patterson is a classic planner, partly, perhaps, because he is often working with a collaborator so there has to be an agreed basis for they will do. Andrew Gross, a former Patterson co-writer who is now a best-selling author in his own right, once told me how it worked. Patterson would have an idea for a new franchise character he wanted to develop, and a specific story idea that would be the basis of that character's new book. He and Andy then fleshed out the idea and then Andy went away and created an 80-chapter outline, which he'd send to Patterson. The latter would then go over the outline, paying particular attention to the first and last five chapters: the key to success, in his opinon. Having arrived at an agreed outline, Andy then fleshed it out and sent his manuscript to Patterson, who then edited and reworked it, again concentrating on the beginning and end. Result? An author who, according to the New York Times (and they should know) sells more books than Dan Brown, Stephen King and John Grisham ... COMBINED.

I have never worked the Patterson way (hmmm .. perhaps there's a lesson there). Instead, I've started from a couple of ideas, on which I've then done a ton of research; a vague sense of where I want to get to; and a couple of big visual images in my head of effects I want to create. The Accident Man, for example, arose out of a single image: a man, in the Alma Tunnel, waiting for Pincess Diana's limousine, about to make it crash ... and he's the hero.

That was all I had. Everything else - including the character of Samuel Carver - simply emerged as I went along. And it's been the same ever since. I write in the constant fear that at some point the ideas and images will simply dry up ... And I remember something Wilbur Smith once told me, which was that he stops work every day in the middle of a paragraph. The only thing he knows for sure when he starts again the next morning is how he'll finish that paragraph. The rest is pure chance, aided by decades of technique. And with 120 million-plus sales, Wilbur hasn't done too badly, either.

The joy of working like that is the excitement that comes when a character or a storyline spontaneously takes on a life of its own. That's happened to me many, many times. I've just finished the fourth Carver book, which will be out in August. In it there's a character who was originally created as a walk-on for a single scene. But she kept popping back into the story. She never quite turned into a major star, as it were, but she's definitely up for Best Supporting Actress. I just discovered that I liked her, enjoyed writing her and found that she could play a really useful role in Carver's life ... but no, not in his bed! In other books, entire sequences, forty or fifty pages long have essentially written themselves as I set up the context for action and then just let it rip.

The more Carver books I write, the more confident I become with that literary hire-wire act. But now I'm trying something different. Purely for my own satisfaction, I'm doing a standalone book, of a rather different type, told in the first person. All of a sudden, I have new problems to consider. I can't cut away to a different location and a new set of characters whenever I want to move the story on or give the reader some new information about the forces arrayed against my protagonist. And since the hero this time is a regular guy with no military training or access to weapons, I can't just have him get out the ol' Heckler & Koch MP5 or Sig Sauer P226 beloved by Sam Carver and start blowing bad guys away.

Since the story involves the unravelling of a mystery that goes back more than 30 years, with events of which my guy was completely unaware, this has made my life very tricky. So my mind has been turning to James Patterson. As anyone who reads his Cross novels will know, he is very adept at mixing first and third-person narrative: a traditional no-no which he pulls off by the simple expedient of not making any big deal out of it at all. But you have to get the balance between narrative styles just right, and the rhythm with which you switch from one POV to another spot-on.

And the only way to do that, I'm rapidly discovering, is to plan, plan and plan again. So today, this very afternoon, that's what I'm going to do. I'm getting big pad, lots of pencils, a hefty eraser ... and I'm going to get this book structured, in advance, and the hell with spontinaeity!

The Best British Thrillers

by Matt Lynn

The Curzon Group does of course exist to prmote British thriller writing. So it is probably appropiate that I've been choosing my favorite British thrillers for The Browser website. You can read my choice here. But what else should I have chosen? I'd be interested to here what people think.

Friday, 19 February 2010

Excuses, Excuses

Not my day to post so here's my excuse for running late this week.

I've always said the best cure for writer's block is a publisher's deadline. This week I faced not one but two deadlines.

I had to complete final changes to ROAD CLOSED. The hand corrected hard copy is in an envelope ready to deliver tomorrow. After eight months of scribbling, rewriting, exulting and despairing, my second book is about to leave my control. It will be published this June. There's no going back now. (It's already reached 10,000 on amazon sales ratings, so it has to be printed soon!)

Those of you who know me might think I'd be stressed in case I lose the hand tweaked MS. What if the house burns down tonight? (Even I'm not daft enough to worry about burglars stealing my MS.) No worries. I'm SO sorted. The corrected MS is scanned and saved on not one but two computers and a memory stick. (If you don't know me yet, you're probably beginning to by now. I used to be neurotic. Now I'm an author, I have an artistic temperament.... )

My other deadline this week was having to complete a 10 page synopsis of the next book in my series, for my agent. (I managed 9 pages written in chapters so I could leave lots of gaps.) (I hope my agent doesn't read this!)

What have I learned? Well, I've discovered that one deadline is a catalyst to action, two seem to operate like negatives and cancel each other out. Somehow, this week's been a bit of a struggle.

That's my excuse for posting late. Next week I'll post on time (Wednesday night) with an interesting and controversial post... Now I'm going to sleep with a rather large envelope under my pillow...

Leigh Russell

Twitter Holics

By Richard Jay Parker

After last week's blog I had a lot of responses via this page but mostly through DMs about the addictive qualities of Twitter. It appears a lot of people out there need their little tweet to get them going in the morning. An itchiness if they're away from the computer too long is another symptom. DTs (Delirium Twitters) anyone? Shame you can't wrap Twitter in brown paper. At least it's not taxed yet.

I can see why people lose so many hours to it particularly those who earn their full-time living by spending their time with only a keyboard for company. It's a great way to make connections with others and stave off lunch hour boredom and loneliness. Because we all only use it during our lunch hour don't we...

But as well as being a great social network for writers it's also brought some great writers and books directly into my home. In fact, the last three I've read have all been through Twitter. It's become another way to politely persuade readers to try you out.

It's make or break with STOP ME. It has great positioning in WHSmith airport and station outlets in their Buy One Get One Free promotion and has made it into the top 50. But it's only got so long to prove itself. One of the pitfalls of this whole process is feeling helpless about what more you can do to make people invest in your work. I can do signings and talks, blogs and interviews but that only goes so far. After that I just have to hope that discerning readers will want to take a gamble and part with their hard-earned money in shops, via Amazon and the home page of my website.

In the meantime, Twitter is certainly a great way to continue to tap people on the shoulder while the fickle retail gods decide whether they're going to smile or not.
Now, sir/madam. Something for the weekend?

Tuesday, 16 February 2010

Reading Aloud...

by Matt Lynn

Last week I was up in Newcastle and then Norwich, giving some library talks, and visiting bookshop, promoting both ‘Death Force’, and the sequel Fire Force’.

As well as talking about where the books come from, one thing I do is read out loud a chapter from both books. And it struck me there is something really interesting about reading something you’ve written to an audience. You get a very real and immediate sense of what sentences work and which don’t. I’m not a skilled enough reader to really look at people closely when I’m reading – I’m looking down at the page – but it doesn’t make much difference. You can just tell from the vibe in the room when you have people’s attention and when you’ve lost it. And you have an immediate sense of how the rhythms of the sentences work, something which is hard to figure out when you are juts looking at words on a page.

If I could find a willing audience, I wouldn’t mind reading a whole book out loud.
After all, it is the most elemental form of story-telling – something like sitting around a fire in a cave, telling a tale. It would be similar to bands playing their songs live for six months before they go into the studio to record them. And I suspect the book would be a lot better for it.

Monday, 15 February 2010

Living the Dream

If anyone had told me two years ago that I'd be sitting at my desk as a published author right now, I would have been very excited at the prospect. The past eight months have been an amazing experience for me, since CUT SHORT came out. Fortunately, CUT SHORT has sold exceptionally well, and has received excellent reviews. Recent ones include a gentleman who advised readers to "Buy this book. Steal it. Whatever you do, read it" and a lady who praised me for "going for the jugular."

So far so lucky.

Handing over ROAD CLOSED for printing is rather different. Yes, I was nervous about the publication of CUT SHORT, but that was a quick peek over the parapet. No one knew about it. I could duck down into anonymity again, hiding behind a pseudonym. With ROAD CLOSED, I have a host of fans with expectations. What makes it more daunting is that I no longer have the excuse of being a debut author, with its connotations of innocence, naivete and youth (ha!)

Yes, I'm living the dream. Yes, it's gone about as well as it could so far... and now my head is well and truly above the parapet.

No going back now.

So here I am, blogging and tweeting, emailing and linking, anything to avoid dotting the last i and crossing the final t of ROAD CLOSED so it can be handed over for printing.

Am I nervous? Who, me? No way. I'm not nervous... I'm terrified.

Leigh Russell

Friday, 12 February 2010


By Richard Jay Parker

Having seen this article it's clear that Twitter is a positive if unquantifiable force in the world of publishing.

I've been 'tweeting' for exactly a year now and have found it to be a great way to work at my desk yet connect with readers, writers and everyone else connected with the wonderful world of books.

I'd never been part of any social networking group before. OK...I may have slunk onto Friends Reunited to see who had registered but it was something I'd never felt a need to investigate. Now it's a intractable part of my daily writing routine.

I received a tweet today from a lady who lives in Hawaii to let me know what her favourite passage of STOP ME was. I can also chat to other writers about their progress with their manuscripts, post reviews of STOP ME and dutifully tweet my FFs (Follow Fridays - the weekly forwarding of good people you think your other followers might like to follow - got that? ) There's also WW (Writer's Wednesday) and myriad other discussion groups and subjects every day. It's also been an invaluable tool in getting people to visit my website.

Twitter does have a lot of idle chat (and who hasn't indulged in that once in a while) but it does also seem to attract people who love words and there's a polite etiquette, camaraderie and generosity of spirit present which continues to restore my faith in humanity.

People say it's a fad and they're probably right but something will inevitably take its place and that will probably demand its users be Twitter familiar. Better ride the little bird before you have to fly with the big eagle. Where did that come from? Must be late on a Friday afternoon.

Thinking about it, most of the people who read this will be clicking through from a link I've Tweeted on Twitter and it's great to have them swing by...whichever part of the world they're from and whatever time they visit.

Just don't slam the door on the way out. I might be in bed.

Wednesday, 10 February 2010

Celebrity or Privacy

Having sold out in just one week in January, ordered 500 copies of CUT SHORT. I should be pleased... but you're getting to know me and my 'What if' questions. So despite all the great reviews this week (links on my earlier post) I started wondering... what happens if no one else buys it?
Then I read this lovely comment on my blog (
"In all honesty, even as a woman myself, I have never been a follower of women writing crime. They never seem to go for the jugular, and always hold back. That was until I heard crime writer Sam Millar praising the hell out of this debut novel, Cut Short. I immediately bought it on Amazon, and was delighted with it. Really great writing, and terrific story. Can’t wait until your new book hits the shelves."
I know some authors are only interested in sales of 1,000s, but I'm still genuinely thrilled when one person enjoys CUT SHORT. I don't think that will ever change.

Matt Lynn asks, should authors remain obscure. Just as there are celebrities who become writers so there are authors who gain celebrity status. Is this a good idea?

A book, like any other creative work, must stand on its own merits. What difference if Melville hunted whales, or Robert Louis Stevenson sailed the seas with pirates. It may be helpfull, but it’s not necessary to experience something before writing about it. I, for one, have never killed anyone.

In this modern world authors need to promote sales of books. This is particularly so when writing for a smaller, independent publisher. CUT SHORT has not benefitted from the 3for2 tables in bookstores, or had a place bought for it on the bestseller lists. It has not been promoted on amazon’s home page or reviewed in the national press. Nevertheless, it has somehow received many excellent reviews and, mainly through word of mouth recommendation, has been reprinted twice in six months. It has sold out repeatedly on amazon, most recently within a week of restocking.

CUT SHORT is out there, in the public domain where people can buy it, read it, and review it. I post links to reviews of CUT SHORT and blog and tweet every time it sells out. I blog about the vicissitudes of CUT SHORT, about the edits for ROAD CLOSED and the concept for DEAD END.

But my own life - dull and irrelevant as it is - my own life is private. And it's really not that interesting to anyone outside my family. (Members of my family are not to comment!)

Leigh Russell

Tuesday, 9 February 2010

Should Authors Remain Obscure?

by Matt Lynn

Stephen Glover wrote an interesting piece in the The Independent yesterday, contrasting JD Salinger and Martin Amis. His point was that sometimes obscurity helps a writer. Salinger hid himself away, whilst Amis of course is massively over-exposed.

He may well have a point. I like Amis, as it happens (the early stuff anyway, just like everyone else). But I'm bored with his new book already, and it isn't even out yet. I'm probably less likely to buy it than I would be if it didn't have all the hype.

I think authors have a difficult balance to stike here. We're all terrified of under-exposure, ecsue there is such pressure to hit sales targerts, that we don't worry enough about the dangers of over-exposure.

Monday, 8 February 2010

A good week for CUT SHORT sold out of CUT SHORT last month one week after restocking. 500 more copies on their way. Might be best to preorder before they sell out again.

CUT SHORT in reviewer's TOP 5 READS of 2009

Two new reviews this week:


CUT SHORT one of many titles included in 4 for 3 offer on

and another 5 star review on today -
"Excellent, 9 Feb 2010
Cormac Mac "Crime king" (London) - See all my reviews
Cut Short is an excellent first novel. It was recommended to me by a friend who loves the Karl Kane series of books by crime writer Sam Millar. I wasn't disappointed. Steel is a name you will be hearing more of in the future. Buy this book. Steal it. Whatever you do, read it."

A good week!

From The New York Journal of Books and Noir Journal
"As the story races to its gripping conclusion, there’s not a moment when the reader won’t be either fearful for another possible victim, hopeful that the killer will make one fatal mistake, or desperately waiting for Steele to discover that one missing clue.
This is an excellent book—the kind one might read for hours on a winter evening before a roaring fire. Russell pulls the reader into an intense involvement with the characters, the town of Woolmarsh, and the search for the killer.
Truly a great start for new mystery author Leigh Russell."

Reviewer Michael Lipkin is a Senior Editor for a major publishing house and the writer and editor for Noir Journal.

Thursday, 4 February 2010


By Richard Jay Parker

It’s a scene that most writers have been part of at some point or another. The project is finished and submitted to agents/publishers etc. But the very second it’s been sent out into the world your home becomes a vacuum, the seal of which can only be broken by ‘significant news.’

Every phone call is a potential release and you feel guilty to be disappointed by convivial calls from friends and family. Every Friday begins with fresh-faced optimism and ends with a dour-faced resignation to another weekend to wait before you can start to wait again.

And then there’s all the second guessing – visualising which point your project is at – being read, being discussed, being rejected, being used as fuel to warm the feet of an editor. It’s when the imagination of a writer is at its most potent. You know it’s a waste of time but the mundane reality is very probably that nobody has got round to looking at it yet.

It’s because every writer believes his or her work to be of vital importance and that it has to be read immediately. Thank the stars this is the case otherwise it would never make it into the post/leave your outbox. However, as soon as it leaves your clutches, its urgency is stripped away by so many factors beyond your control - slush piles, full diaries, office politics, holidays, book festivals, cancelled lunches and any number of human health frailties.

Yes – you’ve guessed it – I’m enjoying that particular, finger lickin’ experience myself at the moment. Bargain bucket of suspense, with side order of mental torture. But I’ve learnt from these many occasions in the past that no news is…no news and the best thing is to focus on other projects in the meantime.

But maybe I’ll hear something before the weekend…

Wednesday, 3 February 2010

Plot and Character

Tom's post started me thinking about my own characters. Where do they come from? I've no idea!
I’m sometimes asked if I base my characters on real people. Many authors do. It is well known that Sherlock Holmes was based on the observant physician, Joseph Bell, who taught Conan Doyle at Edinburgh Medical School.
My own answer to the question is always ‘No’. The better I know a person, the more difficult it would be to base a character on them. Real people are endlessly complex and frequently contradictory. The same person can be grouchy or optimistic, sociable or yearning for solitude, placid or foul tempered, confident or reticent – you get the point.
In crime fiction plot is key. I thought multifaceted characters would be confusing but CUT SHORT has been criticised for its characters lacking depth. So I need to rethink my approach.
In ROAD CLOSED I worked on my main character, Geraldine Steel. She has become more engaging as a result (I hope!) But has the plot suffered from my focus on Geraldine? I don't think so, but I have a long way to go before I'll be satisfied I've mastered the craft of writing.
As I complete my editing of ROAD CLOSED and begin to think about book 3, DEAD END, I will need to keep my wits about me.
I know the formula:
engaging characters + dramatic plot = great crime thriller
But will my experiment produce the intended results?
How do other writers juggle plot vs character?

Currently correcting a MS, I love the freedom of writing on a blog. I read and reread, edit and correct my manuscripts several times. Here, I can type and post without even reading over what I've written. (Should I have admitted that here? I hope I'm not thrown off the blog!)

Tuesday, 2 February 2010

On Seeing A New Book For The First Time...

by Matt Lynn

Headline sent through first copies of the hardback of 'Fire Force' last week, ahead of the publication of the book at the end of this week.

As you can see, it looks fantastic. The cover is slick and sharp, and not quite like anything else on the market.

Despite the inevitable trials and tribulations of this job, there is nothing quite like seeing your book in print for the first time. It is an incredible rush. I usually spend a fair few minutes just looking at the thing. After that, I usually put it down on a coffee table, and walk around it a bit, looking at it from different angles.

After that, I'll flick through it, and read a few favorite passages to myself. And then read a few at randon. And after that, I'll probably put it back on the table, and walk around it a bit more.

This can go on for days.

Ok, I'm nuts.

But, I suspect, most authors, if they are being honest, do something similar.

I don't imagine that thrill ever wears off. I hope not anyway.

Monday, 1 February 2010

Stealing People For My Characters....

by Tom Cain

I’m seeing my therapist this afternoon, like you do … well, like you do when you’re the kind of screwed-up neurotic who becomes a writer for a living. And oddly enough, I’ve been writing about my therapist, too: or a fictionalised, thinly-disguised version of him anyway. He appears in the standalone, non-Carver thriller I’m working on at the moment (on spec: I must be out of my mind … oh, yeah, I AM out of my mind, that’s why I need a therapist), dispensing handy insights to my first-person protagonist.
The words ‘first-person’ suggest that this story will be more than usually autobiographical, but that’s not entirely true. The ‘I’ character is a blue-eyed six-foot-three architect from York, who has a brother and a foreign wife. None of those characteristics are in any way true of me. On the other hand, his emotions, his responses to the situations he encounters and his perceptions of life as a whole are entirely my own. Likewise, many of the key characters, like the shrink, are drawn directly from people I know or have met while researching the book.
This isn’t anything new for me. But what’s interesting, I think, is the way the process works and the degree to which even characters who appear to be direct representations of living people turn out to be very different, with lives of their own on the printed page.
For example, Alix Petrova, the heroine of the first two Carver books –The Accident Man and The Survivor (or No Survivors as it confusingly known in the US and Canada) - was inspired by one detail of an actress’s appearance. I was interviewing Anastasia Griffith, who was recently in that US series Damages, with Glenn Close, when I noticed she had a fractional, barely perceptible asymmetry in her beautiful blue eyes. She told me that she had been cursed with a terrible squint as a girl, and been much-mocked for her wonky eyes. Then, at 14, she had an operation to fix her eyes and – hey presto! – she was a beauty. But in her head, there was always the memory of that plain girl with a squint. When I came to write Alix, I wanted to have a properly sexy heroine, but I also wanted her to have a bit more depth and complexity than the average spy-candy. I remembered Anastasia and gave Alix her eyes and the history behind them. That one detail made the character far more interesting for me to write and, I hope, for other people to read.
Likewise, Carver’s best friend Thor Larsson, a beanpole Norwegian with a mass of pale red dreadlocks is so improbable-looking that I could never have invented him. On the other hand, I have gone on many a journalistic assignment with a fantastic photographer called Pal Hansen, a beanpole Norwegian, etc, etc … Like Larsson, Pal has another unexpected facet to his character, in that beneath his mild, laid-back Scandinavian fa├žade he’s an extremely determined character who did his national service as an army intelligence officer. Nicked that from him too!
But here’s the strange thing … as much as Thor Larsson started out as Pal Hansen, the moment I began writing him, he developed a character entirely of his own. I never, ever stopped to say, ‘What would Pal do in a situation like this?’ I only thought in terms of the fictional, but absolutely alive-in-my-mind Thor Larsson.
The issue is particularly acute in the Carver I’ve just finished in which one character is, quite plainly and undeniably based on a specific political figure. There are very obvious parallels between the facts of the real man’s life and the fiction in my book. I hate to break this to my publishers’ lawyers but the resemblance is entirely intentional. But there is a reason why I have not simply gone the whole hog and named the person in question, and it’s this: my book is fiction. The characters are equally fictional. Even when they seem to be the same as their real-life inspirations, they aren’t. And I want the freedom to make them as different in their own rights as I choose, without having to worry about accuracy or verisimilitude. It’s hard to be specific about those differences, but I think it’s very easy to sense them when one reads the books in question. My sole concern as a writer is to make those characters credible, likable or even loathsome on the page. They may have some DNA taken from a real-life prototype, but I put all the flesh on their bones; I give them the life-experiences that mould them; I cause them to fall in and out of love; to make and break friendships and alliances; to run in fear or to stand and fight.
And there lies a deeper truth about fictional characters. An author – Martin Amis if memory serves – was once asked if one of his characters was autobiographical. ‘No, ‘ he said, ‘they all are.’ In the end, the person all my creations are based on is … me.