What first inspired you to write Benefit of the Doubt?
After running my own business for more than ten years I was ready for a new challenge and having a crack at a novel seemed a good idea at the time. I’m not particularly drawn to the solving of murders in the mechanical sense however the crime / thriller genre is a great way to explore human nature since it turns up the volume on all the normal human emotions and reactions. Instead of either a crime professional like Morse or Rebus or a gifted amateur like Poirot or Wimsey I opted for a pastor as someone who is constantly faced with other people’s problems some of which may involve criminality. That choice then also allowed a lot of meditation on issues of faith, doubt and morality which also interest me. Then David Hidalgo appeared more or less out of the blue and started telling his story.
Do you have a particular writing routine?
I’ve found I need to let an idea grow for about six months before beginning to write in earnest. I tend to start around midmorning by rereading the previous day’s work. That involves some minor corrections but it’s mainly just to get back into the zone. Number of words per day can vary between a thousand up to seven or eight thousand depending on what’s going on and what the characters are getting up to. A writing session goes on until its natural conclusion - however long or short that is.
What is the writing habit that you rely on to get you through a first draft?
I find discipline and routine very helpful in general but I also enjoy the creativity and unexpectedness of the writing process. I write to find out what happens next just as the reader reads for the same reason.
Which living author(s) do you most admire?
In the crime / thriller genre Frederick Forsyth consistently wipes the floor with many more recent “blockbuster” writers. Martin Cruz Smith’s Gorky Park is also head and shoulders above the norm.
Which book would you take to a desert island (excluding the Bible and the complete works of Shakespeare!)?
I have a beautiful one volume large format Narnia my two boys gave me for Christmas many years ago that has happy associations as well as wonderful content. If that’s too much (being strictly speaking seven books) then Three Men in as Boat is constantly entertaining.
How much of you is in any of your characters?
Probably too much and certainly more than I should ever admit to.
In another age I would have been . . .
Maybe a medieval scribe if I were lucky enough, though more probably a nameless serf trying to keep a low profile.
Who would your fantasy dinner guests be?
I always admire the skill of the great jazz age lyricists. It would be fascinating to get a group of the Great American Songbook writers round the table - Irving Berlin, Ira Gershwin, Cole Porter, Dorothy Fields etc. and just listen and learn about how they came up with some of their wonderful work.
Which book do you wish you had written?
So hard to choose just one. The Wind in the Willows is a completely perfect story in its own way. Likewise Catch-22 in a very different way. Or anything by Raymond Chandler.
Who is your favourite literary character?
Philip Marlowe (see above) takes some beating. He is a deeply flawed individual in a corrupt and self serving age still trying to hold onto some sort of basic moral code but also capable of playing hardball when the need arises. His wisecracking dialogue is perfect.
Did any of the characters in your book surprise you while writing?
Constantly. If characters are sufficiently real then they always end up doing and saying things you hadn’t expected. Sometimes a character may be introduced in a very minor role and then start demanding more and more attention. You just have to let them be themselves and see what happens.
What would your super power be?
What is the worst piece of writing or career feedback you’ve received?
I’ve been very fortunate not to have had a lot of writing rejection, however I was once told that the flashback chapters of Benefit would be better off as single paragraphs. I disagreed both then and now.
What is the worst job you've done?
I once had a 12 hour day 7 days per week summer job stamping the date on boxes of frozen fruit. I lasted three weeks and looking back I’m surprised I made it even that long.
What is the most important lesson life has taught you?
I used to say ‘hope for the best, plan for the worst’ but lately that feels over pessimistic. These days I think love, beauty and heroism crop up in the most unlikely places and should be appreciated and nurtured wherever you find them.
Have you written anything and been surprised by its reception?
I’m always surprised that anyone would want to read what I’ve written.
Which book (not your own) do you wish everyone would read?
The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is seen as a children’s book - which it is on the surface - however the underlying themes of courage, betrayal, friendship, sacrifice and redemption are perennial and mythic as well as being beautifully told. On a darker note it might be worthwhile rereading Forsyth’s Icon in the light of the rise of strongman leaders world wide.
Which book do you suspect most people claim to have read, but haven’t?
Obviously the Bible but after that probably Lord of the Rings then anything by Dickens.
How do you feel about physical books versus e-books?
If the story is good enough and the writing convincing then I very quickly forget the medium and could read it as easily on chip paper.
Do you have any advice for an aspiring author?
Without a doubt the best advice I’ve come across is simply “finish it”. You learn a huge amount simply by ploughing relentlessly through the process rather than trying to get Chapter One perfect by rewriting it twenty times. The fact is you just don’t know what the first chapter should say until you’re up to about Chapter Twenty. Some of what you write will please you, you may think other bits are the worst thing you’ve ever written or read. This doesn’t matter much at the first draft stage. Just keep going, let the characters tell their story and hone your skills in description, dialogue, mood and action. Then once you know what it’s about, you can go back and make it better.